Report: US Teachers Miseducate Students on Slavery

The Southern Poverty Law Center's new Teaching Hard History report describes what little US students know about slavery.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s new Teaching Hard History report describes what little US students know about slavery.

By Free Radical

On Friday, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) a study showing that many k-12 students and instructors know very little about the history of slavery. The report, “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery” showed that in a survey of 1,000 high school seniors, only 8% knew that slavery was central to the Civil War. Less than a quarter knew that the Constitution protected slavery and just under 40% understood that slavery shaped core American beliefs about race.

In large part, the SPLC found fault in the way the subject is taught. Instruction often presents the Civil War as spawning from a conflict over states’ rights rather than slavery. Lessons also fail to grapple with the central role slavery and white supremacy played in the formation of the United States.

It’s hard to discuss violence, it’s hard to discuss and teach white supremacy,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate history professor at Ohio State University who spoke during the briefing. “So rather than charging head-on and trying to make sense of something that was so central to the American experience, we have tended to shy away.”

Though most teachers agreed that the topic of slavery was essential and important, 58% percent believed they lacked the appropriate training to teach it. Textbooks, some of which have been slanted to accommodate conservative school boards, have discussed bond persons as workers rather than as enslaved. The use of this benign language obscures the fact that a large portion of labor in the US was forced rather than free, and is at odds with other civic lessons that present the country as valuing democracy and liberty.

The SPLC concluded that a proper understanding of slavery wouldn’t just be helpful as students try to come to grips with the past. It will also help them understand contemporary phenomena in criminal justice, poverty, edu, etc.

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