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Study Reveals Deep Shortcomings With How Schools Teach America’s History of Slavery

Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent report identifies key problems when it comes to educating students on slavery—and offers guidance on how to fix them

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Discussing difficult topics in a meaningful way with adolescents isn’t easy. But that’s the responsibility that comes with the job for history teachers. However, as Cory Turner at NPR reports, a new study from the Southern Poverty Law Center reveals that many classrooms are falling short in this regard, specifically when it comes to teaching about the United States' history with slavery.

The recent report examined text books, state standards and received questionnaires from more than 1,700 K-12 history and social studies teachers. The SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance Project also administered a multiple-choice online survey about slavery to 1,000 high school seniors.

The findings revealed that only one-third of the respondents knew that the 13th Amendment ended slavery, less than half knew about the Middle Passage, and only eight percent answered that slavery was the primary reason the South seceded from the Union. (Nearly half the respondents selected, instead, “To protest taxes on imported goods.”)

The study zooms in on seven key problems when it comes to current state of teaching slavery in U.S. classrooms. Instead of learning about the horrors of slavery and the impact of slave labor on this country, it argues that textbooks and teachers have contributed to a sanitized understanding of history by focusing on "positive" stories about black leaders like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist movement.

The narrative is also skewed by an over-emphasis on the experiences of white people before and during the Civil War. Lessons that divorce slavery from the ideology of white supremacy, focus on slavery as a Southern institution and downplay slavery’s impact on the nation as a whole additionally contribute to a lack of understanding around the origins and impact of slavery in the U.S. As do teachers and textbooks that do not connect the legacy of slavery to later historical periods like Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migration and the Civil Rights movement.

“Students are being deprived of the truth about our history [and] the materials that teachers have are not particularly good,” Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, explains in an interview with Melinda D. Anderson at The Atlantic. “I would hope that students would look at this and realize that they deserve to know better … and teachers need to know there are better ways to teach this [topic].”

But it’s not just uncomfortable teachers that make the topics hard to discuss. Students are often resistant to the topic as well. “When you bring up racism, kids start getting really defensive, thinking that they're to blame," Jackie Katz, history teacher at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, says in an interview with Turner. “To feel comfortable, you need to have a really good classroom climate, where students feel that they're not being blamed for what happened in the American past, where they don't feel shame about it. It is 100 percent not their fault that there is racism in this country. It will be their fault if they don't do anything about it in the next 20 years.”

The study offers four recommendations for improving the quality of teaching of slavery in classrooms. One is to integrate lessons about slavery into all aspects of American history rather than studying it as an era that ended with the Civil War. It also suggests using more first-hand accounts and documents to represent the voices of those marginalized by history. Additionally, the study calls on textbooks to present more complex histories on the realities of slavery and for state curriculums to be strengthened to support such teachings.

“Teaching about slavery is hard,” the authors acknowledge in their report. “It requires often-difficult conversations about race and a deep understanding of American history." However, they conclude, "Learning about slavery is essential if we are ever to come to grips with the racial differences that continue to divide our nation.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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