Another Perspective on the SPLC’s Report on Teaching Slavery

Last week the Southern Poverty Law Center released the results of a survey it conducted on the current state of how the history of slavery is taught in our nation’s schools. The report is well worth reading and offers a number of important insights into the challenges of teaching what is one of the most difficult subjects, especially at the pre-collegiate level. I am certainly not in a position to challenge the SPLC’s findings, but I do believe that the report as a whole needs to be placed in a broader historical context.

Most importantly, we need to keep in mind that what we now consider to be an acceptable narrative, largely drawn from scholarship produced beginning in the 1950s, is a very recent development. New scholarship always takes time to filter down into our classrooms and resources such as textbooks. You don’t have to go back that far to find textbooks littered with references to slavery and related topics that come right out of the Lost Cause narrative.

History textbook published in Virginia in the 1960s and still used as late as the early 1980s.

This perspective matters when considering the results of a survey conducted with 1,000 high school seniors.

There are certainly some surprising and even downright depressing results, beginning with the fact that apparently only 8% of seniors can identify slavery as “the reason the South seceded from the Union.” But in reference to many of these questions I can’t help but wonder what the results would have been in the 1950s, 1970s, and even 1980s. Less than half of the respondents could properly identity the Middle Passage, but what percentage of students across the United States were introduced to it forty years ago? I have the same question about slave codes, slave patrols, slave resistance (beyond the Underground Railroad), and slave life.

Are these results in fact improvements, both in terms of the range of subjects covered and what students are learning, compared with years past?

The section of the report on textbooks was interesting, but not so surprising given recent controversies, especially in Texas. We also need to know much more about how educators are utilizing digital sources and to what extent both teachers and students are properly equipped to search and assess the online sources. This has been a concern of mine for some time.

It goes without saying that any ability to adequately teach a complex subject like slavery demands a financial commitment from administrators and state legislatures. I suspect that the results of this report also track budgets and access to resources throughout the nation.

Again, the report is well worth reading and will certainly help us to move forward.

15 comments… add one
  • I’m glad you wrote about this – I’ve got several issues with the research conducted, not necessarily the basic conclusions but how they arrived there and what the SPLC is demanding.

    My first question though, where can one get a copy of the survey/exam they had students take? All I can find is the 6 question survey on the home page.

    • I don’t believe it is in any way intentional, but my larger concern is that history educators are perceived as having somehow failed at this task. It may be the case that this generation of educators has pushed furthest in teaching this subject compared to years past.

      • I think you’re correct – in fact, Georgia (along with other states) recently changed state mandated standards that includes more references to slavery as well as emphasis on the institution. Like you said, it takes a while for new scholarship to filter down.

        The reason I asked for a copy of the survey, is because there are issues with the questions asked on the short quiz. There were a few DOK 1 type questions (fact regurgitation); as well as questions that would require students have a more in-depth knowledge of slavery in America (not just African) than time allows. There are some issues like that.

        I’m in public ed…we’re all about data…

      • I am teaching the US History from 1865 survey course this semester and we just wrapped up Reconstruction today and moved into The New South (Goldfield textbook). Being the inquisitive person I am, I asked the class what their high school courses on US History covered regarding Reconstruction. None of them (22 in class) had covered Reconstruction in high school. The students were pretty obviously getting challenged by what we covered.

        I took the inquiry another step farther and asked them about the Gilded Age and hat they learned of it in high school. Most of them had never heard about it until this course. Almost all of the students said their high school teachers just went from war to war and left out the concept of change over time, racism, social and cultural histories, etc. I haven’t taught this half of the survey course for a few years and never to such a large class. I’ve reworked this one to incorporate my interactive learning techniques and they are responding positively. It is just amazing to watch them learn things that should have been covered in high school.

        Granted, I teach at a community college in small town USA which could suggest that this is a localized issue due to smaller school’s hiring practices which revolve around hiring a coach who passed the Praxis II test for social studies. However, I graded the AP history short essay exams last summer and was assigned the question on Reconstruction. It was not an uplifting encounter compared to the previous year’s answers on the Revolutionary War question.

        I really would like to see just what is being covered in classrooms because I get the impression that Reconstruction is being ignored far too often. I hope my impression is wrong.

        • I really would like to see just what is being covered in classrooms because I get the impression that Reconstruction is being ignored far too often. I hope my impression is wrong

          Here are the standards in GA – if you graded AP then you saw the concepts.

          SSUSH9 Evaluate key events, issues, and individuals related to the Civil War
          a. Explain the importance of the growing economic disparity between the North and the South through an examination of population, functioning railroads, and industrial output.
          b. Discuss Lincoln’s purpose in using emergency powers to suspend habeas corpus, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and delivering the Gettysburg and Second Inaugural
          c. Examine the influences of Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, William T. Sherman, and Jefferson Davis.
          d. Explain the importance of Fort Sumter, Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Atlanta, as
          well as the impact of geography on these battles.

          SSUSH10 Identify legal, political, and social dimensions of Reconstruction.
          a. Compare and contrast Presidential Reconstruction with Congressional Reconstruction,
          including the significance of Lincoln’s assassination and Johnson’s impeachment.
          b. Investigate the efforts of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the
          Freedmen’s Bureau) to support poor whites, former slaves, and American Indians.
          c. Describe the significance of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments.
          d. Explain the Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, and other forms of resistance to racial equality
          during Reconstruction.
          e. Analyze how the Presidential Election of 1876 marked the end of Reconstruction.

          You’re not entirely wrong about the coach thing – however, in defense of several of my cohorts, many of the coaches are excellent teachers in addition to after school responsibilities. The biggest thing that I’ve observed is the issues with the trickle down of information- many of the teachers here were educated in the South and received information from educators who grew up with and continued to espouse the Lost Cause narrative. Additionally, certain topics teachers tends to linger on because it is their interest. Because of this interest and enthusiasm in the content, they pull out the big guns (projects, films, activities, etc.) For example, the Civil War unit is the only time I show a full length film in class (Glory). It’s no wonder some of the students would make comments such as “my teacher only taught wars.” If you checked with the teachers of those students they could probably show you that they did indeed teach Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, they also probably tested over the material. Because of time crunch, testing windows, and lack of enthusiasm – other material probably received less attention.

        • I teach at a small liberal arts school. I am horrified at what my students, who presumably went to “good schools,” do not know. That includes basics such as Senators are elected for six-year terms, and how Constitutional amendments are adopted.

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  • I took the SCLC Quizz. The first question seemed misleading to me. Were Muslims enslaved as Muslims in the English colonies? Also, if slavery had to be hereditary and life-long to be slavery, were blacks we think of as enslvaed no longer slaves while in bondage following the passage of gradual emancipation laws?

    • Others have suggested that some of the questions could have been clearer.

  • This is depressing indeed. These results just go to show that much of America, especially the South, is still not willing to accept it’s past atrocities.
    In Germany today, the horrors of the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by the Nazi Regime are taught in all schools across the country to make sure that those horrors never repeat themselves ever again. Even in my country (despite the resurgence of the alt right here) most people are typically educated on the atrocities the British committed in Ireland and the Colonies, as well as our prominent role in the Atlantic slave trade before it’s abolition.
    When American students learn about slavery however, it’s often a disturbingly sugar coated version of events which denies the true extent of human suffering. The Lost Cause narrative also denies the long term impact that slavery has had on black Americans, which is still present to this day, even after the abolishment of the Jim Crow laws. And the fact that most students in the survey got the simple question of ‘what caused the Civil War?’ wrong is worrying especially. The fact that this denialist mindset is still being planted into the minds of young people and children, really makes me question the state of humanity.

  • It took the courts to change the Mississippi history book, but may districts still used the old text well into the late 80’s. Mississippi is a place that fights change tooth and tail, as seen in the state flag debate.

    These may be worth your time.

  • Re textbooks, as recently as 2007 in “enlightened” Fairfax County VA, the 4th grade VA history textbook taught that enslaved people fought for the Confederacy.
    My daughter could not be convinced otherwise, because at age 11 she adored her teacher, plus it said so “right there” in her textbook!

  • I think both contentions can be true: that current teaching isn’t good enough but is still better than it was before. The worrying trend is the rose-colored racist brigade in states such as Texas.

  • I don’t see any reason to blame teachers. My guess would be it isn’t that students were exposed to all those questions and the teachers better taught (and the students retained) information in some areas more than others. With the emphasis on STEM in schools (and less time available) it is more likely the survey results show the areas history teachers prioritized (the higher scores) and the lower scores reflect the areas they didn’t have time to teach. It makes the case that one of the most important things teachers do is inspire students to develop an interest in a subject so they’ll go on their on beyond what is taught in the classroom. I believe we’ll pay a price for treating education like a trade school where we value only what is perceived to benefit future employment. Social sciences and the arts teach students how to reason and express complex ideas (skills which even someone employed in a highly technical environment badly needs).


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