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Surprise, Surprise: Survey Reveals That American Students Are Not Being Adequately Taught About Slavery


Water is wet; also, a new survey from the Southern Poverty Law Center has drawn attention to the fact that students in the United States are not being taught the full truth about slavery, leaving them inadequately educated on the subject.


Of course, anyone who knows anything about education in the United States is probably unsurprised by this, but if you wanted some numbers to throw at that one person who always wants receipts but still doesn’t believe you when you hand ’em over, here you go.

According to the survey, high school seniors have trouble with even the most basic questions about slavery.


For example, only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed could identify slavery as the main cause of the Civil War. About 48 percent of students said that tax protests were the cause. About 68 percent of those surveyed didn’t know that it took an amendment in the Constitution to formally end slavery. In addition to that, only about 22 percent could “correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.”

Overall, the study notes, “The responses as a whole were dismal, even on very easy items.” According to the report, there were no cases in which more than 67 percent of students selected the correct answer for the same question.

The survey also found that while more than 90 percent of teachers said they feel comfortable talking about slavery in the classroom, their response to open-ended questions belied a deeper level of discomfort. More than half (58 percent) of teachers surveyed also pointed out that textbooks on the subject were inadequate.

And they seem to be right; according to the survey, the average score of popular textbooks included in the study was 46 percent against the SPLC’s rubric of what should be included on the subject, and the best textbook providing comprehensive coverage of slavery and those enslaved got a score of 70 percent.


These numbers, the study notes, show that the issue lies in how slavery is taught in the classroom.


The SPLC notes that slavery is often taught without context, with mostly good news being presented before the bad. For example, it’s common for students to learn about the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and other heroes and abolitionists before they learn about slavery and how slave labor helped build the nation.

When students are taught about slavery in and of itself, it is often taught as solely a Southern institution and is rarely connected to the white supremacist ideology that helped sustain and protect it. Slavery is often also taught as something of the past that has been addressed and solved, without making any connections to how the institutionalized system is impactful even in the present day.


The survey notes that more needs to be done and offers recommendations including improving instruction about American slavery and fully integrating it into history using original historical documents, making textbooks better and strengthening curriculums across states.

“Teaching about slavery is hard. It requires often-difficult conversations about race and a deep understanding of American history. Learning about slavery is essential if we are ever to come to grips with the racial differences that continue to divide our nation,” the report notes.

News Editor at The Root, animation nerd, soca junkie, yogi

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Have they tried stepping on the students?