Equity & Diversity

How is Slavery Taught in U.S. Schools? Not Well, Says Study

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 06, 2018 5 min read
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Slavery on U.S. soil underpinned virtually every aspect of life in the Antebellum South. The North, too, depended on the wealth slavery generated; its profits fueled westward expansion. Racist ideology explicitly developed to justify slavery. Slavery is the central cause of the bloody Civil War.

Those are core, fundamental aspects of American history, ones that virtually all historians of the United States agree on. But most students are not being taught them in school, concludes a damning report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights and advocacy organization.

Instead, what students are taught about slavery is fragmentary, without context, and worst of all, sentimentalized or sanitized, says the report, released last week.

“The most troubling finding is that usually there is no systematic approach to teaching this topic,” said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, an SPLC project. “They learn about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, or Frederick Douglass very early on as heroes who oppose slavery. And they are not taught what slavery is, until 4th or 5th grade, and often in surprising ways.”

In all, the report comes as a stunning indictment of how the U.S. education system has approached the teaching of this important subject. One of its subtexts is that American history is taught as a story of progress, even as current events—such as the rollback of portions of the Voting Rights Act, discrimination in the criminal justice system, and the continuing segregation of schools and neighborhoods—show how slavery’s legacy reverberates throughout public policy today.

“Students who are struggling to understand Black Lives Matter ... can’t fully understand it or invest in it without learning about slavery,” said Jackie Katz, a U.S. history teacher in Wellesley, Mass. “Students have a lot invested in modern narratives about the America Dream.”

Assessing the Landscape

The report is based on an examination of student and teacher surveys, an analysis of 15 states’ content standards, and a review of about a dozen high school history textbooks, all vetted with an eye to 10 key concepts on slavery crafted by historian Ira Berlin.

The teaching of this fundamental American topic, it says, tends to focus on enslaved persons’ resistance or escape, rather than the violence it wrought on black bodies and families. It’s taught as a Southern phenomenon, a “peculiar institution,” rather than something originally sanctioned and protected in the Constitution.

Slavery is virtually never considered alongside white supremacist ideology, which was explicitly created to justify slavery, the report asserts. The voices and varied experiences of slaves are generally excised, and connections to topics like the Great Migration and the civil rights movement are missing.

As a result, most of those tenets do not seem to be reaching students, the SPLC’s nationally representative survey of about 1,000 high school seniors shows. In all of the concepts, less than 8 percent of students knew why Southern states seceded from the union; only 12 percent knew about the economic importance of slavery to the North; and only 18 percent could name an important result of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt.

Key Concepts for Teaching About Slavery

The Southern Poverty Law Center evaluated the slavery instruction provided to students in 15 states based on whether the lessons taught that:

  • Slavery, which predated European settlement, was important to all of the colonial powers and existed in all of the European colonies in North America.
  • Slavery and the slave trader were central to the development and growth of the economy across British North America and later, the United States.
  • Protections for slavery were embedded in the founding documents; enslavers dominated the federal government, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the U.S. Senate from 1787 through 1860.
  • Slavery was an institution of power, designed to create profit for the slaveholder and break the will of the enslaved and was a relentless quest for profit abetted by racism.
  • Enslaved people resisted the efforts of their enslavers to reduce them to commodities in both revolutionary and everyday ways.
  • The experience of slavery varied, depending on time, location, crop, labor performed, size of slaveholding, and gender.
  • Slavery was the central cause of the Civil War.
  • Slavery shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness, and white supremacy was both a product of, and legacy of, slavery.
  • Enslaved and free people of African descent had a profound impact on American culture, producing leaders, and literary, artistic, and folk traditions that continue to influence the nation.
  • By knowing how to read and interpret the sources that tell the story of American slavery, insight is gained into some of what enslaving and enslaved Americans created, thought, aspired to, and desired.

Teachers, too, had knowledge gaps. Only a little over half of those surveyed said they spoke about the continued legacy of slavery, and less than half said they used original documents in their teaching.

Interviews with the teachers showed many felt deep uncertainty about the topic. Some said they wanted to spare children its brutality or were concerned about age appropriateness; others focused on stories of resistance.

Teachers worried about potentially terrifying black children, or inducing guilt or defensiveness in white students, or generally having the topic becoming a racial flashpoint in class. On the other hand, the report says, too many teachers reported using “simulations” of the Middle Passage or slave auctions in class, despite the trauma they can inflict on students.

Katz, the Massachusetts teacher, said it’s hard for students to get past the myth of the North as the “good guys,” especially since Massachusetts effectively outlawed slavery in the 1790s. “But then they hear about the Lowell mills and lightbulbs go off in their heads: ‘Wait a second, where are we getting that cotton?’ ” she said.

Standards, Textbooks Fall Short

The SPLC’s review of state history standards found that none explicitly addressed white supremacy and how that idea rose to justify slavery.

In addition, many state standards were puzzling in their incoherence: California requires students to learn about Harriet Tubman in grade 2 but doesn’t specifically mention slavery until grade 4. Alabama lists “sectionalism” before slavery as the cause of the Civil War in two grades. North Carolina describes slavery as a “political issue” or “cultural conflict.”

Not surprisingly, secondary school history textbooks also fell short, the group concluded; two state-specific textbooks, one each from Texas and Louisiana, covered just 7 percent of the core concepts.

To an extent, the findings also reflect the fact that books and materials haven’t always caught up with the academic scholarship on slavery produced over the last 20 years or so, said Kevin M. Levin, a Civil War historian and former high school history teacher.

“It’s only in the last few decades that you find this shift taking place, that we are addressing these tough questions,” he said. “It takes time to filter down. A lot of it is generational—it is going to take time to see a bit more of this transition playing out.”

Addressing the gaps in states’ expectations will take significant pressure from policymakers, the reports’ authors said—a tough challenge because of how it upends powerfully convincing, nostalgic narratives.

“You think about the preamble of the Constitution, a ‘more perfect union’—it describes the way we teach American history. We were perfect at the beginning, and have become even more perfect since then,” Costello said. “These standards say that what we really have to remember is that we resisted it and overcame. But one of the big points is that slavery and racism grew up together. We ended slavery, but we did not end those racist ideas. They are here today.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as States Are Teaching Flawed Lessons on Slavery, Says Study


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