A new report released this week shows American teenagers have been left shockingly ignorant by their schools when it comes to understanding slavery.
According to the study Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, published on Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center, huge majorities of high school seniors have little to no understanding of slavery’s roots, nor its ongoing impact on race relations in the United States. Per the report:
- Only 8% of high school seniors surveyed can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.
- Two-thirds (68%) don’t know that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery.
- Fewer than 1 in 4 students (22 percent) can correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.
The study adds that while teachers are overwhelmingly comfortable discussing slavery and its effects, a majority feel their textbooks are sorely lacking, while 40% say their state “offers insufficient support” when it comes to teaching about slavery.
“It is of crucial importance for every American to understand the role that slavery played in the formation of this country,” Harvard Professor and report adviser Henry Louis Gates Jr. said in an SPLC release. “And that lesson must begin with the teaching of the history of slavery in our schools. It is impossible to understand the state of race relations in American society today without understanding the roots of racial inequality – and its long-term effects – which trace back to the ‘peculiar institution.’”
The study was conducted over the course of 2017 through the SLPC supported Teaching Tolerance project, which has offered educators a suite of classroom resources to help bolster what is clearly a sorely inadequate framework teaching how slavery came to be, and how its effects continue to shape the United States today.
Through their research, the study’s authors identified several key failings which have each contributed in weakening schools’ ability to accurately, and holistically teach about slavery—they include an inability to connect the prevalence of white supremacy (both historical, and contemporary) with the institution of slavery, as well as largely framing lessons on slavery as a problem solved, rather than an ongoing, open wound in the national psyche.
The study comes at a time when the impact of inadequate—and even deliberately misleading—historical context around slavery has been demonstrated at the highest levels of American power. Earlier this year, White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly echoed far-right pundit Laura Ingraham in praising Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and lamenting the Civil War as the product of a “lack of an ability to compromise.” Donald Trump took historical ignorance a step further last May during a radio interview in which he mused, “Why was there the Civil War?” It seems the president would fit right in with the majority of America’s high school seniors.