Our high schools just aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to teaching about the Civil War and the role of slavery in shaping American society. A report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center on February 1st found that only 8 percent of high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Not only that, but two-thirds of high school seniors were unaware 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.
Educators all over the country attribute this issue to a variety of external factors such as the fact that the textbooks provided to them do not adequately address the topic. However, there are without a doubt other factors that come into play, namely the White educator’s fear of portraying our country and its master narratives in a negative light. “It’s hard to discuss violence and teach white supremacy. It’s hard to learn about the shortcomings of our American icons and heroes,” says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at Ohio State University, “It’s hard to wrap our minds around the fact that something so vile undergirds our history. So we have tended to shy away.” This illustrates an extreme example of what D.W Sue refers to as the academic protocol. Educators hesitate to bring up racial issues in the classroom out of fear of “striking hot buttons” and evoking powerful emotions that can cause certain students to become defensive and heated.
Yet where do we draw the line? How can we let awkwardness and discomfort stop us from discussing such an important event that has shaped our contemporary structure and racial climate? I’m not shocked to hear that most schools don’t discuss the racial caste system that arose out of the civil war and how racism has reformulated itself in different ways, such as through colorblind ideology and the school-to-prison pipeline; I know I personally did not learn any of this in high school. However, I am shocked and appalled to hear that the Civil War is just not being taught in general. This doesn’t just extend to the Bible Belt states that frequently refer to this conflict as the War of Northern Aggression; northern states like Massachusetts, which prides itself on its robust education system, apparently doesn’t require its schools to discuss this conflict.
How can students possibly grasp the magnitude of the Civil Rights Movement or the origin of the Black Lives Matter movement without understanding the history of slavery? Are our nation’s high schools purposefully trying to push an agenda that displaces White people from responsibility for systematic inequality?