What Kids Are Really Learning About Slavery

The topic of the teaching of slavery is a contentious one with a saddening amount of horror stories such as posing questions on why Africans were good slaves or reenacting the conditions of a slave ship with ghastly attempts at realism. The Charlotte, North Carolina and Los Angeles, California schools in question came under heavy fire for such unorthodox methods of educating children on slavery.

A Look at the Statistics  

Despite slavery in America being common knowledge, the depth of that knowledge is in contention. A study done by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) surveyed U.S. high school seniors and social studies teachers, analyzed a selection of state content standards, and reviewed 10 popular U.S. history textbooks and highlights the following shortcomings:

  •         Only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War
  •         Two-thirds (68 percent) don’t know that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery
  •         Fifty-eight percent of teachers find their textbooks inadequate
  •         The best textbook achieved a score of 70 percent against our (SPLC) rubric of what should be included in the study of American slavery; the average score was 46 percent
  •         Forty percent of teachers believe their state offers insufficient support for teaching about slavery

These results beg the question of what is being taught about slavery if there is such a failure to teach, especially with such lacking textbooks, some of the most important anchoring points of slavery in America

What is Taught

In their report, the SPLC go on to identify what they believe is wrongly being focused on when it comes to the teaching of slavery such as showcasing the good stories from the time period (Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and the Emancipation) while skirting around the raw reality of what slaves went through and how vital slave labor was to the success of America as a whole.

There is also too much focus on the perspective that slavery was only prevalent in the South. All the colonies utilized slave labor for decades prior to the Civil War but it is commonly taught that slavery was pretty much a South only issue.

Moving Forward

Teaching Tolerance, an organization that helps teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy, recommended a focus on several key concepts that would help raise the teaching of slavery in America to where it needs to be. 

They advocate for a specific focus on how slavery was vital to the very foundation of America itself, the fact that slavery was accepted on nearly every level of society and government, the acknowledgment that white supremacy was the center stone of slavery and both a product and legacy of slavery, and the utilization of more primary sources from non-white sources to shift a focus towards a closer look at what life was like for those enslaved in America. 

Such a stain on our nation’s history should not be understated or minimized. We owe it not only to the victims of the past but to our current and future generations to learn from the lessons of the past. 

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