The question of what students should learn about the Civil War, the role that slavery played in it, and the history of Reconstruction—the period from 1865 to 1876 when African Americans claimed their rights to freedom and voting, followed by a violent backlash by white Southerners—causes contentious disputes among educators, historians, and the American public. One outcome of these disputes is that ideologies often masquerade as historic facts. Texas’s 2010 standards, for instance, listed states’ rights and tariffs, alongside slavery, as the main causes of the Civil War—even though historians overwhelminglyagree that slavery was the central issue.
Another common problem is omissions: A 2017 survey of 10 commonly used textbooks and 15 sets of state standards found that textbooks treated slavery in superficial ways, and state standards focused more on the “feel-good” stories of abolitionists than on the brutal realities of slavery. When the same study surveyed 1,000 high-school seniors across the country, it found that among 12th graders, only 8 percent could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and fewer than four in 10 students surveyed understood how slavery “shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness.”
Of course, students aren’t students forever, and the views of American adults are influenced by what they learn as children. When one 2015 poll asked American adults whether slavery was the main reason for the Civil War, 52 percent said that it was, while 41 percent said that it was not. In the same survey, 38 percent of adults insisted that slavery should not be taught as the main cause of the Civil War. That the country is divided on how to deal with Confederate statues and the Confederate flag follows in lockstep.
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