How to improve the flawed education of slavery

By: | March 22, 2018

Schools fail to adequately teach the history of American slavery, partly because teachers lack the preparation to cover it, according to a recent study from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Also, students have little basic knowledge about the role slavery played in shaping the nation: Only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, the study found. Two-thirds did not know that it took a constitutional amendment to end the practice.

“You cannot understand the United States of America if you don’t understand slavery” says Christy Clark-Pujara, report contributor and associate professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Any curriculum about U.S. history that does not seriously consider slavery is a myth.”

Most state standards fail to include meaningful requirements for learning about slavery, the report found. A major part of the problem? Nearly 60 percent of teachers said their textbooks were inadequate on the subject.

While textbooks have improved from past depictions of slavery as a carefree welfare system, very few talk about racism, says historian and sociologist James Loewen, who wrote a chapter in Understanding and Teaching American Slavery. “They teach slavery without relevance to the present” Loewen says. “That’s the biggest single failure.”

Textbooks also almost completely neglect the influence of slavery on foreign and domestic policy, he adds.

‘No good masters’

District leaders must give teachers time and incentives to take courses on slavery, says Clark-Pujara, author of another chapter in Understanding and Teaching American Slavery.

“This material is incredibly intimidating because we have a race problem in America and most people are brought up not to talk about it” Clark-Pujara says. “Slavery is at the root of that.”

Teachers should establish at the beginning of lessons that discussions about slavery are difficult, but necessary, no matter the race of the teacher or of the majority of students.

Teachers should rely less on textbooks and more on original sources in lessons about slavery, Loewen says.

Clark-Pujara also recommends that teachers draw a moral line in the sand during lessons: “There is no good slavery, and there were no good masters” she says.

This becomes difficult when students learn about the founding fathers, most of whom were slaveholders. “You can appreciate the Constitution and still be critical of it as a document that supported slavery” she says. “We underestimate students’ ability to understand complexity.”

California’s new rules

In November, California became the first state to mandate study of African-Americans and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, with particular emphasis on portraying the contemporary role of these groups.

The changes came with the approval of new instructional materials that align with the 2016 History/Social-Science Curriculum Framework, says Scott Roark, spokesperson for the California Department of Education. Another addition was more detail on African-American history, and specifically the institution of slavery.

“Through assigned readings, students can reflect on the meaning of slavery both as a legal and economic institution, and an extreme violation of human rights” Roark says.

“These materials will give students a deeper and more accurate understanding of history and equip them with the critical thinking and research skills to make up their own minds about controversial issues.”