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.

16 comments… add one
  • Dudley Bokoski Feb 7, 2018 @ 19:20

    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).

  • Msb Feb 7, 2018 @ 12:36

    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.

  • Maryann Germaine Feb 5, 2018 @ 18:20

    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!

  • OM Feb 5, 2018 @ 13:22

    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.

  • Bex Feb 5, 2018 @ 10:10

    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.

  • Patrick Young Feb 5, 2018 @ 6:45

    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?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2018 @ 6:47

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

  • Rob Baker Feb 5, 2018 @ 5:59

    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.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2018 @ 6:30

      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.

      • Rob Baker Feb 5, 2018 @ 6:41

        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…

      • Jimmy Dick Feb 5, 2018 @ 15:47

        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.

        • Rob Baker Feb 6, 2018 @ 13:45

          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.

          • Greg Rowe Mar 25, 2018 @ 4:03

            Yes, coaches are overwhelmingly history/social sciences teachers in most high schools, at least in Texas and Louisiana where I have taught. To get a couple of my own teaching positions, I have had to accept a coaching spot to do so. Are there terrible history teachers who are also coaches? Yes? Are there great history teachers who are coaches? Yes. Roughly speaking, in my experience with history teaching colleagues in two states, it’s a crap shoot as to what you get and sometimes the desire to win will override quality classroom instruction.

            That said, Texas splits its U.S. history instructional standards, like most states and even colleges. Over 400 years of English history in North America sort of demands that. What I find problematic to teaching any topic in U.S. History and expecting it to stay with students in Texas is U.S. History before 1865 is taught in the eighth grade– a throw-back to when compulsory attendance laws allowed a student to drop out after the eighth grade and financial circumstances often dictated some do so to go to work and add an income to help the family. U.S. after 1865 is taught as a high school junior course. There is not only a two-year gap in U.S. history coverage in Texas public schools, but also some asinine politician writing curriculum standards into a bill decided to put world history and/or world geography in the interim. There is no coherent sequence to history instructional standards in Texas. In addition, with the last standards revision, unless a student is getting a general or liberal arts endorsement, there are only three high school history credits required to graduate. Secondary history follows the following sequence:

            6th Grade: World Geography and World Cultures — very broad focus
            7th Grade: Texas history — very narrow focus
            8th Grade: U.S. History before 1865 — broader focus; tested subject
            Freshman/Sophomore: Either World History or World Geography (one must be taken in either year; both must be taken in each year if the general or liberal arts endorsement is sought) — very broad; World Geography, of course focuses on geography and World History attempts to cover 6,000 years of recorded history in 10 months.
            Junior: U.S History after 1865 — compared to either two years of broad-based history instruction, at best, or one year of broad-based history instruction and no history class, at worst, there is a return to a comparatively narrow focus. This is also a tested subject.
            Senior: U.S. Government & Economics — I can see the impetus for teaching Government here — many students reach or are close to voting age and it is appropriate, though I think Economics would be better served by totally teaching Personal Finance rather than the focus on macro- and microeconomics.

            The point here is Texas flip-flops between broad-based and narrowly-focused history classes throughout secondary education to such a degree students here can’t even remember what they learned when, from what teacher, or to what degree anything was covered. Recent changes in the eighth grade standards has shifted a focus from the Civil War to the Early Republic and the foundations of American government. (Not that that is not important, but let’s face it: with politicians writing the standards, and Texas being a “red state,” that is a very skewed perspective, to say the least, and one in which, if taught correctly would not mean what those politicians think it means!) Emphasis on testing also determines a teacher’s focus. With few questions regarding slavery, beyond its influence on Southern colonial economies and its influence on the Civil War (which there seems are only about a dozen stand-by questions that rotate on the test on either topic) on the eighth grade test and no questions regarding Reconstruction on the junior-level test, even the best history teachers are not going to go into great depth on either subject, opting to cover heavier tested topics in greater depth. The Sectional Crisis in the before 1865 course looks more at the influence of industrialization as a catalyst for the Civil War rather than placing an emphasis on the reform movements that both slavery and industrialization gave rise.

            I know this is one or two states, but trends in education tend to stretch across the country, though it appears there is a more coherent sequence in some other states. The point here is teachers learn what is being tested and tend to focus on those topics — some teachers to the exclusion of others. I would agree that time, testing requirements, and interest in certain topics determine, in large part, a teacher’s focus, with both topics covered and instructional methods (e.g. projects, papers, and films). I think some of the questions on the SCLC survey might never be covered more than a passing method in any middle or high school survey course. Heck, I didn’t learn what the Middle Passage was until I pursued some advanced history electives in college!

        • woodrowfan Feb 6, 2018 @ 16:20

          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.

    • Bill Black Feb 5, 2018 @ 6:57

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