Just in time for Black History Month, a new study from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) shows that American students in grades K-12 are only receiving a sanitized version of slavery history, according to Huffington Post.
The report shows that teachers prioritize teaching positive and uplifting stories such as Harriet Tubman leading slaves to freedom over the horrifying and negative aspects of slavery. The authors also found that the more traumatic parts of slavery, such as rape, are usually taught as an isolated incidents. Furthermore, the study found that teachers rarely touch upon slavery's significant effect on the systematic racism that has carried on into today, often because they don't know how to do so.
“I dislike making this history come alive for my black students," a teacher in Texas said. "I feel helpless to explain why its repercussions are still with us today.”
A teacher in Connecticut added, “I struggle with talking to kids when they’ve been given the idea that, ’Slavery was a problem, but everything [having to do with race and inequality] is fixed now.’”
SPLC surveyed over 1,700 social studies teachers across the United States. Only 66 percent of those teachers said that they discuss how immoral slavery was. Just over half said they discuss the continuing effects slavery has on today's society.
Over 90 percent of teachers said they were comfortable discussing slavery with their students, but that comfort waned when students asked more open-ended questions about the topic.
“I focus on the resistance factor more to avoid the children being scared by man’s [inhumanity] to man. I don’t want to steal any child’s innocence, though I want to make sure that the children know the real history of their country,” one teacher said.
Teachers also pointed to the lingering effects of slavery as making teaching about it difficult.
“It is challenging to establish a classroom in which race can be talked about openly,” a Pennsylvania teacher said. “They are ready to label each other as ’racist.’”
A high school teacher in Florida said that lessons about slavery can lead to anger and hurt feelings. “High school students feel uncomfortable talking about slavery among a mixed group of black and white students. The white students are afraid they are going to say something that is going to make a black student angry and the black student is going to say something like, ’You whites did this.’ Therefore, neither will openly discuss the topic.”
Avoiding the topic and teaching slavery in broad strokes has affected many of the nation's students. For instance, only eight percent of high school seniors surveyed said that slavery was the primary reason for the Civil War, according to independent poll results.
“If we don’t get the early history of our country right, we are unlikely to be equipped to do the heavy lifting necessary to bridge racial divides now and in the future,” the report's authors wrote. “It is a moral necessity if we are to move the country forward toward healing slavery’s persistent wounds.”