Why Schools Fail To Teach Slavery's 'Hard History'

Feb 4, 2018
Originally published on February 7, 2018 8:49 pm

"In the ways that we teach and learn about the history of American slavery," write the authors of a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), "the nation needs an intervention."

This new report, titled Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, is meant to be that intervention: a resource for teachers who are eager to help their students better understand slavery — not as some "peculiar institution" but as the blood-soaked bedrock on which the United States was built.

The report, which is the work of the SPLC's Teaching Tolerance project, is also an appeal to states, school district leaders and textbook-makers to stop avoiding slavery's hard truths and lasting impact.

The Teaching Tolerance project began in 1991, according to its website, "to reduce prejudice, improve intergroup relations and support equitable school experiences for our nation's children."

The report includes the "dismal" results of a new, multiple-choice survey of 1,000 high school seniors — results that suggest many young people know little about slavery's origins and the government's role in perpetuating it. Just a third of students correctly identified the law that officially ended slavery, the 13th Amendment, and fewer than half knew of the Middle Passage. Most alarming, though, were the results to this question:

Which was the reason the South seceded from the Union?

a. To preserve states' rights

b. To preserve slavery

c. To protest taxes on imported goods

d. To avoid rapid industrialization

e. Not sure

Nearly half blamed taxes on imported goods. Perhaps, the report's authors guessed, students were confusing the Civil War with the Revolutionary War.

How many students chose slavery as the reason the South seceded?

Eight percent.

"Slavery is hard history," writes Hasan Kwame Jeffries in the report's preface. He is an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University and chair of the Teaching Hard History Advisory Board. "It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it."

The problem, according to the report, is not that slavery is ignored in the classroom or that teachers, like their students, don't understand its importance. Many clearly do. The problem is deeper than that.

The Teaching Tolerance project surveyed nearly 1,800 K-12 social studies teachers. While nearly 90 percent agreed that "teaching and learning about slavery is essential to understanding American history," many reported feeling uncomfortable teaching slavery and said they get very little help from their textbooks or state standards. The report includes several powerful quotes from teachers explaining their discomfort, including this from a teacher in California:

"Although I teach it through the lens of injustice, just the fact that it was a widely accepted practice in our nation seems to give the concept of inferiority more weight in some students' eyes, like if it happened, then it must be true. Sometimes it gives students the idea to call black students slaves or tell them to go work in the field because of the lack of representation in textbooks. So when students see themselves or their black classmates only represented as slaves in textbooks, that affects their sense of self and how other students view them."

And this from a teacher in Maine:

"I find it painful, and embarrassing (as a white male) to teach about the history of exploitation, abuse, discrimination and outrageous crimes committed against African Americans and other minorities, over many centuries—especially at the hands of white males. I also find it very difficult to convey the concept of white privilege to my white students. While some are able to begin to understand this important concept, many struggle with or actively resist it."

Jackie Katz, a history teacher at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Mass., says student discomfort is a big challenge when talking honestly about slavery.

"When you bring up racism, kids start getting really defensive, thinking that they're to blame," says Katz. "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."

This defensiveness from students does not surprise Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of history at American University and author of the National Book Award-winning Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas In America.

"Saying that the deadliest conflict in American history was fought over an effort to keep people enslaved conflicts with students' sense of the grandness of America, the grandness of American history and, therefore, the grandness of themselves as Americans," says Kendi.

Beyond this discomfort, the report lays out several key "problems" with the way slavery is often presented to students. Among them:

  • Textbooks and teachers tend to accentuate the positive, focusing on heroes like Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass without also giving students the full, painful context of slavery.
  • Slavery is often described as a Southern problem. It was much, much more. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, it was a problem across the colonies. Even in the run-up to the Civil War, the North profited mightily from slave labor.
  • Slavery depended on the ideology of white supremacy, and teachers shouldn't try to tackle the former without discussing the latter.
  • Too often, the report says, "the varied, lived experience of enslaved people is neglected." Instead, lessons focus on politics and economics, which means focusing on the actions and experiences of white people.

States and textbook-makers deserve considerable blame for these problems, according to the report. The project reviewed history standards in 15 states and found them generally "timid," often looking for slavery's silver lining; hence a common preference for coverage of the abolitionist movement over talk of white supremacy or the everyday experiences of enslaved people.

"State standards we looked at are simply confused," says Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance. "We celebrate the heroes who escaped slavery long before we explain to children what slavery was."

Reviewers also studied a dozen popular history textbooks, using a 30-point rubric to measure their engagement with slavery's key concepts. No book scored above 70 percent; five scored below 25 percent, including state-level texts from Texas and Alabama that earned just 6 points out of a possible 87.

Teaching Hard History comes out of earlier work the Teaching Tolerance project had done, unpacking how schools teach the U.S. civil rights movement.

"One of the reasons that schools don't teach the civil rights movement particularly effectively," says Costello, "is because we don't do a very good job of teaching the history that made it necessary, which is our long history of slavery."

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A multiple-choice survey asked high school seniors across the country what caused the South to secede from the Union. Only 8 percent of the students answered slavery. This was part of a survey that started in 2016 by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group also heard from teachers and reviewed textbooks and state standards to see what schools are and are not teaching kids about slavery. In a new report called "Teaching Hard History," the group concludes that the nation needs an intervention in the ways that we teach and learn about the history of American slavery. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team joins us now. Hi, Cory.


SHAPIRO: Apart from that 8 percent figure we mentioned, what did this survey of students show?

TURNER: Yeah. So we should say it was an online survey of about a thousand high school seniors. So in a relatively small sample size, it's hard to know how much to make of it. But the results were really interesting. I mean, the report's authors called them dismal. Just a third of students understood that the 13th Amendment was the law that officially ended slavery. And fewer than half of students knew what the Middle Passage was or that slavery was legal in all 13 colonies when the American Revolution started.

SHAPIRO: The survey also looked at school textbooks and state education standards. What did that show?

TURNER: Yeah. The authors of the report called those timid and confusing. And they came up with a few really big red flags. Number one, we tend to accentuate the positive - so focusing on heroic stories of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln - and not spending nearly enough time - in fact, in many cases, no time at all - on the voices of people who spent their entire lives enslaved, what their work was like, their love, their pain, their art, et cetera. Also there's a big focus on the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. And that tends to give students the misimpression that slavery's impact and the ideology of white supremacy also ended with the 13th Amendment.

SHAPIRO: What did the survey reveal about teachers' feelings on educating students about slavery?

TURNER: Ninety-seven percent of teachers surveyed said teaching and learning slavery is essential to understanding American history. But many said they felt hamstrung by those poorly written textbooks and weak standards. They also said - this was a common refrain - that it can be really awkward and uncomfortable getting some of their white students to talk about racism and white supremacy without them getting defensive. There's a really great quote from a history teacher named Jackie Katz at Wellesley High in Wellesley, Mass. She says, quote, "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, though, if they don't do anything about it in the next 20 years."

SHAPIRO: So what does this report suggest for teachers who actually want to do more to fix this problem?

TURNER: Well, that's one of the great things about the report. It is full of resources for teachers. It comes with a really rich framework of suggestions for teachers that go all the way back to the pre-colonial era, including even an overview of slavery around the world. There are suggestions like avoid emotional simulations of things like the Middle Passage or slave auctions.

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry, there were actually people acting out slave auctions...

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, we've even...

SHAPIRO: ...In schools?

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, I've even seen this in the headlines recently. It's something that's fairly common in classrooms. And the report's authors suggest, you know, don't go there. Instead, the report says, really double down in your class on primary documents, original documents. Let your students really dig into these narratives, you know, diary entries from enslaved people. Look at the wanted posters for runaway slaves. Look at schematics for slave ships. There's lots of good stuff here for teachers and students.

SHAPIRO: Cory Turner from the NPR Ed team, thanks a lot.

TURNER: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.