Report Shows Students Don’t Know Slavery Was the Central Cause of the Civil War

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 14: A pair of slave shackles are on display in the Slavery and Freedom Gallery in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture during the press preview on the National Mall September 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. Filled with exhibits and artifacts telling the story of the first Africans in the United States and their descendents, the 400,000-square-foot museum will open to the public on September 24. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When it comes to the history of slavery in the U.S., the central role it played in shaping the country and its continued impact on race relations, students don’t know much.

In fact, only 8 percent of high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, according to a report released Thursday by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But don’t blame the students. As the report shows, schools aren’t including it in curriculums, teachers aren’t prepared to teach it and textbooks don’t include enough material about it.

“It’s important that everyone understand that slavery is truly at the foundation and formation of this nation,” Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at Ohio State University, said on a press call the center organized Thursday. “You really can’t understand the American past or present without having a good grasp of the role that slavery played in this country.”

But the report shows that two-thirds of high school seniors don’t know that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery, and fewer than 1 in 4 students can correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.

“A lot of our students don’t even understand the role of the North in slavery and how it benefited from slavery,” Jackie Katz, a U.S. history teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, who was also on the call, said. “When they learn about the Civil War, they like to think that we in the North are the good guys. Massachusetts was the first state to abolish slavery. But then they hear about Lowell mills and they think, ‘Wait a second, where were getting that cotton.'”

The survey, which was conducted over the course of one year by the center’s Teaching Tolerance project, also found that teachers, textbooks and state academic standards aren’t helping the situation.

While teachers overwhelmingly responded that they feel comfortable discussing slavery in the classroom, the report found that nearly half think their textbooks are inadequate and 40 percent believe their state offers insufficient support for teaching about slavery.

“It’s hard to discuss violence and teach white supremacy. It’s hard to learn about the shortcomings of our American icons and heroes,” Jeffries said. “It’s hard to wrap our minds around the fact that something so vile undergirds our history. So we have tended to shy away.”

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SOURCE: U.S. News and World Report, Lauren Camera