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.
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.