The Miseducation of US History Students (Opinion)

by Chinemerem Nwanze

In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released a report titled “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery” as part of the Teaching Tolerance Project. The study yielded stunning results about how slavery is discussed – or better yet, not discussed adequately enough – in American schools. Among the shocking results were:

  • Only 8% of high school seniors surveyed knew that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War.
  • Less than 22% of these students could name ways in which the Constitution benefitted slave owners.
  • 68% of the students surveyed were unaware that slavery was formally ended by a constitutional amendment.

 Although nearly 90% of teachers say they are comfortable and confident in their ability to teach slavery, there are several inadequacies in the way this impactful part of history is being taught and the SPLC study demonstrates how dire the need for a “U.S history intervention” truly is.

Slavery was the destruction of African societies, the separation of Black people from their families and motherland, and the stripping away of the identities of Black people, forcing Black Americans to create an enriched culture of their own. Slavery was an inhumane practice that lasted more than 400 years – and even after those 400 years, Black people today still face discrimination. However, this is not the way slavery is typically described in American history courses. As Cerritos High School senior Adam Yohannes perfectly puts it, “Slavery is seen more as an institution than as an atrocity.”

   We have been taught slavery with a huge emphasis on the perspective of the slave owner rather than the enslaved, which is why it is hard for students to understand how horrific slavery really was. Let’s put it this way: If a massive earthquake occurred in California, yet media sources only covered ways in which people who lived in Montana would be affected by the earthquake, would people around the country understand how serious the earthquake was? No, because the views of the Californians who actually experienced the earthquake were completely shut out. This is exactly the way slavery is taught in most high school American history courses: students are taught about how those in power at the time passed Act after Act to keep slavery within certain state boundaries, how the South nearly seceded because of slavery, and how a war ensued because two parts of the country disagreed on whether Black people should remain enslaved. There is no mention about the terror that slaves had to endure on a daily basis, generation after generation. Why I would want to learn about the lives of slaves? Throughout my 12 years of public education (especially in high school), I have watched documentaries about the Holocaust, written journal entries about the Dust Bowl, and read accounts of Japanese internees during World War II – all as part of my history classes. I’m not saying that these events weren’t awful, because they were. But slavery is something that lasted over 400 years and its effects are still present today. Why don’t we watch documentaries like The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross or Unchained Memories?  Why is it that students don’t get to read the accounts of Olaudah Equiano? Why is it that we don’t talk about Benjamin Banneker, Sojourner Truth, or Phillis Wheatley?

  Mr. Stecher, a US History teacher at Cerritos High School, does his best to be fair, even though he admittedly feels uncomfortable teaching slavery at times. “I try to teach both perspectives,” he says. “Sometimes I’m worried that I’ll be scrutinized if I don’t teach it the right way.” However, not everyone is as considerate. For example, in March 2017, a fifth grade teacher from South Orange, New Jersey was harshly criticized for assigning a project in which students had to make posters advertising a slave auction. Whitney High School in Cerritos, California came under fire in September 2017 because of a slave ship simulation that consisted of students being taped together, laying on the classroom floor with the lights turned off, and watching a clip of the movie Roots. These attempts to “recreate the slave days” are not only insensitive, but very inconsiderate to students of color especially.

    As a Black high school student, I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable every time a history teacher told me to “imagine being a slave owner” so that I could see how valuable slaves were. I remember the stares I would receive from my classmates every time the world “slave” was mentioned in a lecture. Some Black students are descendants of American chattel slavery, and slavery is painful to talk about – being singled out or asked to put yourself in the shoes of the oppressor doesn’t make it any easier.

  Ultimately, slavery is a major part of U.S. History that needs to be taught in depth. Slavery is tied to so many aspects of American history – and slave labor is seen throughout the nation. Who do you think played a role in building the White House and Harvard University? I understand that slavery is a sensitive subject, but American History needs to be written in way that shows both the good and bad.  No country is perfect.

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