Why Don’t We Tell Children the Truth about Slavery?

A sad new report offers proof of something history teachers have long lamented: Most students don’t learn much about slavery in their history classes. This terrible failure of our school network isn’t just about slavery; it’s a profound and depressing fact about our schools: We don’t dare to tell kids the truth.

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George Washington doing what George Washington did. Why is it considered unpatriotic to tell the children about it?

Why not?

The report on students’ knowledge about slavery comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The numbers are sadly predictable. Under a quarter of the students surveyed could identify the ways the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders. Most teachers (over 90%) claimed to want to teach more and better information about slavery, but they reported feeling unsupported by textbooks and state standards.

Our national reticence to teach children the undeniable and important historical truth about slavery has long roots. Time and time again, history classes focus on a feel-good national story. As Yale’s David Blight puts it in the report’s preface:

In America, our preferred, deep national narratives tend to teach our young that despite our problems in the past, we have been a nation of freedom-loving, inclusive people, accepting the immigrant into the country of multi-ethnic diversity. Our diversity has made us strong; that cannot be denied.

And, as the reports’ authors note,

We teach about slavery without context, preferring to present the good news before the bad. In elementary school, students learn about the Underground Railroad, about Harriet Tubman or other “feel good” stories, often before they learn about slavery. In high school, there’s over-emphasis on Frederick Douglass, abolitionists and the Emancipation Proclamation and little understanding of how slave labor built the nation.

This fear of telling students ugly truths has a long history. As I noted in my book about educational conservatism, many of our culture-war battles about teaching US History pitted the bashers against the boasters. Conservatives wanted kids only to hear about America’s glories. Progressives wanted to teach that the US has always had plenty of moral flaws.

In the 1930s, for example, journalist and patriot Bertie Forbes attacked the popular textbooks written by Harold Rugg. Rugg hoped to introduce students to the real complexity of international relations. In Forbes’s opinion, such efforts would rob students of their patriotic fervor. As Forbes wrote in 1940,

If I were a youth, I would be converted by reading these Rugg books to the belief that our whole American system, our whole American form of government, is wrong, that the framers of our Constitution were mostly a bunch of selfish mercenaries, that private enterprise should be abolished, and that we should set up Communistic Russia as our model.

By and large, historically speaking, the Forbeses of the world have always won these fights. Schools primarily teach (and taught) students that America was a place they could love. Teaching too much or too frankly about slavery has always been seen as a dangerous and controversial effort.

It’s not only slavery that is ignored or misrepresented. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are keenly aware, schools shy away from all types of controversial topics, even when the controversy is contrived.

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From Berkman & Plutzer: Can we please not talk about it?

As Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, only a minority of high-school biology teachers teach mainstream evolutionary theory and only mainstream evolutionary theory in their classes. The rest tend to mash together a mix of mainstream science and dissenting creationist ideas. Why? Because most teachers share the ideas of their local communities. If people want their kids to learn a variety of ideas about science, that’s what most teachers will deliver.

This has always been the case. In the 1940s, an enterprising scholar set out to discern how many teachers taught evolution. One teacher from California explained why he avoided the topic of evolution in class. As he put it,

Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers.

And there’s the rub. Teachers will tend to avoid controversy. There’s no controversy among historians about whether or not slavery was a vital and decisive element in US history. There’s no controversy among mainstream scientists about whether or not mainstream evolutionary theory is a vital and decisive element in biology.

But broad segments of the population disagree. They don’t want their children to learn that America has historical flaws. They don’t want their children to learn that our species developed by a long series of minor changes.

Unless and until those things change, classrooms won’t improve. I heartily concur with the four-point action plan put forth by the recent SPLC report. It recommends the four following steps:

  1. Improve Instruction About American Slavery and Fully Integrate It Into U.S. History.
  2. Use Original Historical Documents.
  3. Make Textbooks Better.
  4. Strengthen Curriculum.

All good ideas. But they won’t be enough. Just like evolutionary theory, the history of slavery won’t be included in our classrooms until it is included in our day-to-day conversations. Until the country as a whole recognizes the importance of America’s ugly past, classrooms will continue to ignore it.

As we’ve seen time and again, we can’t use curriculum to change society. We need to change society and watch curriculum follow along.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

You might have been out fishin’, but the interwebs kept foaming over. Here are some stories SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have missed:

From the University of Colorado, Boulder’s latest token conservative scholar reflects on his experience.

Trump, Bannon, Conway: Historian Andrew Wehrman says they would be right at home with America’s Founding Fathers.

Cut it out: Tom Englehardt argues in The Nation that progressives should stop insulting Trump.

Atheists strike back, ninety-two years later. Freedom from Religion Foundation sponsors a statue of Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tennessee.

We know Republicans don’t like colleges these days.

Who gets to define “hate?” American Conservative Rod Dreher tees off on the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Bart reading bibleIf Americans really do oppose school segregation—as they tell pollsters they do—then why are schools getting more and more segregated? In The Nation, Perpetual Baffour makes the case that class prejudice has supplanted racial prejudice.

Harvard considers banning fraternities and sororities. It hopes to diminish exclusionary, inegalitarian arrangements.

  • At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf asks, “is there any American institution that trades on unapologetic exclusion and perpetuates inegalitarian arrangements that benefit an in-group more than Harvard?”

Why does the Trinity Lutheran decision matter? Not because of playgrounds, but because of vouchers.

Don’t do it: Medievalist argues against luring college students into medieval studies with Game of Thrones references.

Queen Betsy’s civil-rights deputy apologizes for saying that 90% of campus rape accusations were due to regret over drunken hook-ups.

The segregationist history of school vouchers.

Curmudgucrat Peter Greene on the ignored dilemmas of rural schools.

Why bother killing the Department of Education? It has already been dying on its own for the past thirty years.

In the News: Anti-Fundamentalist Hate Crime?

FRC President Tony Perkins.

According to a story from Religion News Service, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins accused the Southern Poverty Law Center of inciting a hate crime against them on Wednesday.  The irony is beyond painful.  The SPLC has long been a leading voice identifying and condemning right-wing hate violence.  Is Perkins’ accusation a mere stunt? Or does the SPLC have to acknowledge its role in this crime?

On Wednesday, Floyd Lee Corkins II allegedly entered an FRC office in Washington DC and shot unarmed security guard Leo Johnson in the arm.

FRC President Perkins blamed the SPLC for inciting this violent act.  Perkins claimed,

“Corkins was given a license to shoot an unarmed man by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center that have been reckless in labeling organizations as hate groups because they disagree with them on public policy.”

The SPLC has, in fact, accused the FRC of some despicable actions.  According to the SPLC, the FRC demonizes homosexuality.  FRC leaders, according to the SPLC, have publicly advocated the expulsion of all homosexuals from the USA.  The FRC, according to the SPLC, has also equated homosexuality with pedophilia.  These are not insignificant claims.

As Chris Lisee reported for Religion News Service, the alleged shooter had been an activist at some local gay-rights organizations.  Even more curious, he had been carrying a large bag of Chick-fil-A sandwiches.  The symbolism seems unmistakeable.  After all, given the recent culture-war dust-up over Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, a gay activist might not usually purchase fifteen sandwiches from the chain.  Fox News claims that just before opening fire,  Corkins said, “I don’t like your politics.”

So was this an anti-fundamentalist hate-crime?  Can the SPLC be held accountable?  The SPLC’s Mark Potok called the FRC claim “outrageous.”   Other gay-rights organizations quickly condemned the shooting.  Potok’s defense makes an important point.  The FRC shooting was a tragedy, Potok claimed, but Perkins was cynically taking advantage of this event to claim a “false equivalency” between the FRC and other victims of hate crimes.

Nevertheless, Perkins’ accusation raises important questions.  As we’ve seen with other recent culture-war violence, such as the deadly shootings at the Sikh temple near Milwaukee, the dangers of escalating America’s culture war are real.  Language that demonizes the opposition hurts us all.  The solution must be more along the lines of Matthew Lee Anderson’s and John Corvino’s response to the Chick-fil-A affair: we must talk to one another.  Openly, honestly, and even painfully and awkwardly, if necessary.  We don’t need to agree, and we must avoid the false solution of merely papering over our disagreements.  But we must also all agree–as most groups do in this case–that violence is not part of these discussions.