How slavery is taught and why it’s a problem

As consumers of polarized media, we are increasingly aware of the need to fact check everything—even textbooks. What we know about history from a young age shapes how we perceive the world and connect with our past, and to that end, history books are failing to give children the truth about slavery.

A new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center outlines how schools fail to provide a comprehensive view of the history of slavery and why that needs to change. It also provides framework and instructional tools for new pedagogy and curricula. The report even points to the government’s failure to address the issue; however, the report neglects to identify the need for people in power to implement such reform.

“Teaching history of any kind is complicated,” wrote Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune. “All stories of the past are incomplete. What we value and understand shifts. Our understanding of slavery is complicated by the fact that so many Americans treat the study of its history as if it were a sporting event in which they’re obliged to pick a team,” she continued. “But black history—which is American history—isn’t sport. There are no sides, no teams.”

Facts and Figures

Teaching Tolerance—a project organized by the SPLC—polled 1,000 high school seniors in an online survey asking questions about slavery. The results are alarming.

When asked the question, “What was the reason the South seceded from the Union?” 79 percent of polled students answered incorrectly. “Among 12th-graders, only 8 percent could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War,” wrote Melinda Anderson for The Atlantic. “Fewer than one-third (32 percent) correctly named the 13th Amendment as the formal end of U.S. slavery, with a slightly higher share (35 percent) choosing the Emancipation Proclamation,” Anderson continued.

The study also polled 1,786 K–12 teachers. The report stated that only 39 percent of teachers reported teaching about “religion and slavery,” and just over half (52 percent) teach students “the legal roots of slavery in the nation’s founding documents.”

While the study polled students and teachers from across the country, all states are not equal.

The Mississippi fight against integration and civil rights was the most organized, defiant, and violent of anywhere in the country,” The Atlantic reported. “But until 2011, civil-rights history was not part of the required curriculum in Mississippi public schools.”

Even after the 2011 standards were set, “At least 40 districts relied on books published before 2011 for the study of U.S. history after Reconstruction, usually taught in 11th grade. Some school districts were using textbooks with copyrights as early as 1995,” and these textbooks are “full of holes and omissions about the state’s civil-rights history,” the article continued.

“We can and must do better.” –SPLC report

“If you teach someone the truth of what happened then they cannot help but to change their perception of what reality is,” said Mississippi teacher Kristin Kirkland in an interview with The Atlantic.

It’s concerning to think children today are not being taught the truth about slavery because the implication, as stated by SPLC, is that, “We rarely connect slavery to the ideology that grew up to sustain and protect it: white supremacy.”

The report fails to fully address the fact that education policy must be reformed. It points out the failure of the institution and outlines how things can change, but it does not address the magnitude of the task at hand: Reforming educational policy requires reforming legislature and policy-makers themselves.

We are in an era of non-truths presented as truth for political agenda and gain, and we must elect scientists and people who support such change if we are to see the change we desire. Kids need to know the truth about our history in order to understand the world we live in.