Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

National Study: Schools 'Timid' about Teaching Slavery History; by Denise Smith Amos

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

National Study: Schools 'Timid' about Teaching Slavery History; by Denise Smith Amos

Article excerpt


A national study finds fault with the way American students learn about slavery -- or don't -- in school and describes state standards and text materials on slavery as "timid," incomplete and sometimes confusing.

The study released this week by the Southern Poverty Law Center examines 15 states' academic standards, including Florida's, as well as the slavery content of some popular history textbooks, and it analyzes online surveys of social studies teachers and high school seniors.

"There are huge gaps with teachers, in textbooks and in the state standards, which tend to avoid slavery, which was incredibly important to the American economy," said Maureen Costello, director of the law center's Teaching Tolerance project. "(Slavery's) profits fueled the Industrial Revolution and built our country in the 18th and 19th centuries."

Florida includes slavery in some history lessons, but some teachers suggest that the horrors and brutality of slavery are glossed over.

Surveys of a nationally representative sample of 12th graders show many missed

some key points in American history dealing with slavery. A majority of the students gave the wrong answers or indicated they didn't know the answers to 12 of the 18 questions in the survey quiz.

Only 8 percent knew that slavery was the central reason the South seceded from the Union. Almost half thought the Civil War was caused by tax protests, possibly confusing it with the Revolutionary War, the study said.

Fewer than half (46 percent) correctly identified the Middle Passage as the journey across the Atlantic from Africa to North America.

Michael Bostic-Jones, a William Raines High social studies teacher, said he's not surprised.

In his experience, slavery is dealt with mostly in seventh and eighth grades and not picked up again until the 11th grade, but only briefly as an introduction to the Civil War, he said.

"We start at the Civil War and we don't teach the issue of slavery much," he said. "I teach in a predominantly African-American school and by (11th grade) they're missing so much information it's almost crazy."

Bostic-Jones said he tries to supplement state requirements with other lessons and resources but he's limited in the amount of time he can stray from district lesson schedules. He also said the history textbooks the district use talk more about states rights than slavery as reasons for the Civil War.

John Meeks, a civics teacher at Mayport Middle, noted that some history books still refer to the Civil War as the War Between the States and some students' parents and grandparents call it the War of Northern Aggression.

Like evolution and global warming, slavery is a controversial and contested subject in some homes and in government, which controls the schools.

"As much as it is the duty and mission of public schools to ensure that students are informed young citizens, you also have to take into consideration what the community leaders were raised on," Meeks said. "We have to be mindful of the community we serve. You don't want to be targeted by people who are just looking for ways to say (students) are being brainwashed."

Meeks said that when his class deals with slavery he sticks to the facts, although he wishes there were more lesson materials on Florida's long history with slavery, including the roles of Fort Caroline, Fort Mose and St. Augustine.

Most textbooks take national views of history, which don't adequately describe the lives and varied circumstances of enslaved people, the study said.

In its survey of teachers, which was not random nor nationally representative, more than 90 percent of teachers said they are "comfortable" discussing slavery in class but 58 percent said their textbooks are inadequate.

The textbooks painted slavery as mainly a southern institution, for instance, even though slavery was legal in all 13 colonies at some point, the study noted. …

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