Note: This story appears in the Sunday, Feb. 11 newspaper on Page A1.
A new report finds that high school students all over the nation are struggling to understand the United States’ history of African enslavement.
After surveying 1,000 U.S. high school seniors and social studies teachers, analyzing state content standards and and reviewing popular U.S. history textbooks, a Southern Poverty Law Center report finds that seniors struggle to answer basic questions regarding African enslavement in the U.S, and teachers have difficulty providing deep coverage of the subject in their classrooms.
According to the SPLC, this is a significant problem that stems from deep-seated American ideology.
“The biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in America is the deep, abiding American need to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress,’ as the story of a people and a nation that always sought the improvement of mankind, the advancement of liberty and justice, the broadening of pursuits of happiness for all,” the report’s introduction states.
Fitz Read, a history teacher at Athens High School, agrees with the report in that sense.
“Textbooks often have this narrative — this Disney narrative — that the villains are easy to spot,” Read said.
The law center’s report report scores 12 textbooks based on how they comprehensively cover slavery. The highest score a book received was 70 percent, while the lowest was 7 percent (the average score was 46 percent). The textbook used in Read’s classroom, “American Pageant,” scores a 60 percent.
According to the report, a majority of teachers find their textbooks inadequate.
The report also finds that state content standards fail to set “appropriately high expectations.”
“Of the 15 sets of state standards we analyzed, none addresses how the ideology of white supremacy rose to justify the institution of slavery,” the report states. “Most fail to lay out meaningful requirements for learning about slavery, about the lives of the millions of enslaved people, or about how their labor was essential to the American economy.”
Forty percent of surveyed teachers think their states offer insufficient support for teaching about slavery. Ohio was not analyzed in the report.
Read explained high school education in Ohio centers around standardized testing. Teachers are required to cover the content that will be present on the tests, which doesn’t leave room for many social studies or history teachers to go into depth on certain parts of history, he said.
“We as teachers have to give fast and superficial coverage of every topic,” he said. “Within Athens High School we’re given a lot of discretion in what we teach, but every time we choose depth we may be short-changing our kids in the 1970s/1980s (history), which they need to know to perform well on the test.”
Along with the report, the SPLC has developed a framework for teaching about slavery called “Teaching Tolerance.” Read thinks what he is teaching in the classroom lines up in many ways with that framework.
The report features other noteworthy statistics, including that only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. The report states 48 percent of the respondents said tax protests were the cause, noting that it’s possible respondents got the Civil War confused with the Revolutionary War.
“I am baffled by that 8 percent statistic,” Read said. “That is inexcusable.”
Read, who teaches sophomores, said he would like to think that most of his students could correctly answer that question. He noted the number of his former students who could answer that question correctly might drop a little if they were asked as seniors because it wouldn’t be fresh in their memories, but that it would still be “a heck of a lot higher than 8 percent.”
Read said he has been in debates with friends in the past who have “white-washed” reasons behind the South seceding and the Civil War, arguing it was because the South wanted to maintain their states rights.
“States rights to do what? Have slavery,” he said. “In every secession document in every Confederate state, slavery is mentioned in the primary sources as being a chief cause for that secession.”
The report recommends textbook authors and curriculum developers should include more historical documents in the books. Read said he thinks secession documents should be featured in textbooks when talking about slavery and the Civil War.
Read said he believes there is some resistance from people to think about the country’s past sins and how they might influence society today.
“The way we all like to view our country is that everyone has a fair chance, and we’re the land of equality and opportunity,” he said. “To suggest that the deck is stacked against one group or another goes against the fundamental views that many have of our country.”
He also said he thinks many people are “threatened” to admit the Civil War was about slavery and that “there is more progress to be made in race relations.”
“Reconstruction was a bad time for African Americans,” he said. “I teach my students that the Civil Rights Movement (during the 1950s and 1960s) was Reconstruction too. They were trying to fix the problems unaddressed in the 1860s and 1870s ... We’ll look back on 2018 in 30 years and very clearly see that there is racial injustice now.”