A new report issued by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that our nation’s schools are failing at teaching the history of slavery in the United States to our children. According to the report, “Schools are not adequately teaching the history of American slavery. Educators are not sufficiently prepared to teach it. Textbooks do not have enough material about it.” Too often, slavery is romanticized and its cruelty underplayed. Students do not learn about the centrality of slavery to our nation’s economy and overall history. As a result, only 8 percent of 12th graders surveyed identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War.
As a scholar of the Reconstruction Era with a daughter currently taking AP U.S. History, this issue is especially interesting to me. Unfortunately, I am not at all surprised. Over the course of our history, the history of slavery and the Reconstruction Era has been heavily contested and politicized. During the early Twentieth Century, the dominant school of history, known as the Dunning school, framed Reconstruction as northern domination and exploitation of the south. In popular culture, the movie “Gone with the Wind” reflected this view. Starting in the 1960s, and inspired by the Civil Rights movement, historians such as Eric Foner and Michael Les Benedict shifted the dominant narrative and showed that Reconstruction was a time when the federal government established fundamental rights for freed slaves and all people in the United States. However, the new report shows that this historical consensus is not being adequately taught to our children.
It is not surprising that the dispute over the history of this era in the academy spilled over to our country’s elementary and secondary schools. Michael Kent Curtis details this history in this marvelous essay. In the early and mid-Twentieth Century, school children in northern states learned about the “War Between the States” and those in southern states studied the “War of Northern Aggression.” Recent debates over the statues of confederate war heroes revealed the extent to which southern states romanticized the “lost cause” of the southern rebels. Teaching about the brutal reality of slavery undermined this narrative, as did the indisputable fact that the confederacy was founded to protect slavery (made clear in the Confederate Constitution). In the north, downplaying slavery implicitly justified the federal government’s failure to intervene in the Jim Crow south, and ignoring racism and segregation in the north.
Unfortunately our nation’s schools have not made much progress in the teaching of the complex and difficult subject of slavery and race in our nation’s history. The continued failure to adequately teach about slavery is both disappointing and consequential. The history of slavery still profoundly affects our country. We can see echoes of slavery in the vestiges of Jim Crow, the mass incarceration of African Americans, the effective use of racism as a political rallying cry. Misunderstanding our history also affects our law, reflected in the Supreme Court’s race blind approach to the Equal Protection Clause and restriction of voting rights laws. The history of slavery is profoundly important, and it always will be in our racially troubled nation.