A recent test of 1,000 high school seniors found that just 8 percent thought slavery was “the reason the South seceded from the Union.”
Rick Holmes, an award-winning journalist and longtime GateHouse Media columnist, is on the road in search of the ties that bind Americans — and the forces that pull them apart. With all eyes on Washington, Rick reports from real places too often reduced to primary colors on an election map.
Biloxi, Mississippi — “Lost Cause” history lives on at Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis, the first and last president of the Confederate States of America. Exhibits highlight his service to the United States before he abandoned it. A film instructs visitors that it was his sense of honor and loyalty to the state of Mississippi that drove him to lead the secessionists.
Slavery, barely mentioned, had nothing to do with it.
Same story at the the museum in Charleston, South Carolina, run by the Daughters of the Confederacy. Lots of dashing southern soldiers, but not a slave in sight. Secession was a noble cause, a guide tells me, and had nothing to do with slavery.
This thinking isn’t limited to temples of the Lost Cause. A recent test of 1,000 high school seniors found that just 8 percent thought slavery was “the reason the South seceded from the Union.”
Nearly half of the students chose the answer citing opposition to taxes on imported goods, maybe confusing the Civil War with the Revolutionary War. Most of the rest said the South seceded to “preserve states’ rights.”
States’ rights is the excuse apologists have given for southern secession for more than a century, but its logic has never been convincing. States’ rights to do what? The only ones mentioned by those who chose secession are the right to keep slavery legal, the right to nullify federal laws regulating slavery and the right to secede from the Union, over slavery.
If the students had been encouraged to look up primary sources, the correct answer is easy to find. Most of the seceding states, following the example of the Declaration of Independence, issued declarations listing the causes of their actions. South Carolina’s primary complaint, for instance, was “hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery.”
The question about secession is part of a larger study of how students are taught about slavery and how much they learn. Commissioned by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the study’s conclusion is “not much.” The authors of the report suspect teachers shy away from the “hard history” of slavery in favor of more upbeat themes. Heroes like Harriet Tubman and victories like the Emancipation Proclamation are emphasized in tests and curriculum, while the real horrors of chattel slavery are played down.
I suspect teachers also don’t want to upset students with the fact that the nation’s bloodiest war was launched in defense of the right of white Americans to own black Americans – especially in states that seceded.
There’s another suspect in the students’ historical ignorance: The Texas Board of Education.
The 15 people elected to oversee schools in the Lone Star State may be the most powerful school board in country, and one of the most political. They’ve been fighting culture battles for years over hot-buttons like evolution and religion, with the social conservative majority usually coming out on top.
In 2010, the board approved a set of social studies curriculum standards with a strong Tea Party flavor: It declared Moses to be an important influence on the founding fathers, but Thomas Jefferson was dropped from its list of important thinkers. It requires students to consider the “unintended consequences” of advancements in civil rights and to appreciate the virtues of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and the National Rifle Association.
As for the Civil War, after one conservative board member described slavery as an “afterthought,” the standards were changed to require students to understand “the causes of the Civil War, including sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery.” Downplaying slavery is teaching Jefferson Davis’ view of the Civil War.
With the standards scheduled to be reviewed this fall, the Texas Education Network, a liberal think tank, has called for a major rewriting. A conservative think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has also criticized the Texas standards, calling them “a politicized distortion of history,” with “misrepresentations at every turn.”
Texas is a huge market for public school textbooks, so when the BOE dictates what must be taught, national textbook publishers listen. That means the history textbooks being used in every state may have been tweaked to meet the preferences of the cultural conservatives on the Texas Board of Education. Their influence isn’t as great as it once was. After the board’s 2010 battles with the education establishment, the state Legislature gave local districts more freedom to choose textbooks, and digital publishing makes it easier to customize textbooks to suit varying state standards.
This is what happens when history lessons are dictated by political officials instead of history teachers. Lessons that aren’t grounded in fact are indoctrination, whatever the ideological slant being promoted. Our children need true history, even hard history, that illuminates current political debates without being infected by them.
Rick Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow his journey at www.rickholmes.net. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, on follow him on Twitter @HolmesAndCo.