Civil What?

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?

4 thoughts on “Civil What?

  1. 3There is defiantly a lack of education within the school system on topics like slavery and on the important topic of slavery being the central cause of the civil war. This would for many people create an uncomfortable situation within the classroom, so therefore teachers tend to follow the academic protocol. Teachers want to avoid bringing this up and it may be because they don’t feel equipped to have a discussion about race in the classroom or they don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. Most of what I learned about slavery within the civil war and in general was at home and watching educational films and having discussions as well as asking questions to my parents. I can’t even remember learning about slavery within the classroom setting but I do remember watching films like “Roots” with my family.

  2. The academic protocol is absolutely something I have been actively thinking about since we learned about it in class. The fact that we are supposed to be so emotionless and objective in learning slavery is unrealistic. The way “slaves” are spoken about in the school system is dehumanizing. Perhaps “people-first language” could partially remedy the situation – calling them “people who were enslaved” instead of “slaves” gives them their individuality and humanity back. I don’t know if this would have helped me recognize the weight of slavery earlier, but I think it is a strategy that may have some merit.

  3. I really like this post Benjie. This reminds me a lot, too, of the positive image surrounding the story of Christopher Columbus. We glorify him in our school systems as a hero who got us where we are today, who discovered our country; none of which is actually true. We celebrate Columbus day as a national holiday. We essentially celebrate millions of deaths and the enslavement of indigenous people who lived here before us, who actually discovered this country. Just like you mentioned in your post about the Civil War, the public education system is not pulling its weight when it comes to teaching about Columbus and his history. We are taught that he is a good man who sailed his ship here and started what our country is today. The parts we are missing includes all of the underlying racism involved in his expedition. He and his counterparts stripped the land from these people, lied to them, killed them, raped them. Yet, we are not taught any of this; it makes me wonder how much of history we do not know, because the public education system leaves out information that it wants to forget about our past. I really liked your questions around how kids are expected to grapple with and understand the Black Lives Matter movement if we have such a skewed system around our understanding of slavery and oppression to begin with.

  4. I remember being shocked when I learned about the racial underpinnings of America’s founding. It was something that wasn’t touched upon until late in my high school history courses. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned about the motivation behind the Constitution- as it was largely based in efforts to preserve a racial caste system while affording political and economic rights to white citizens. I wonder if, as you mentioned, if this is a displacement of responsibility.

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