If you believe what the papers have been saying for some time, American high school students don’t know much about much. They don’t know, among many other things, what speech the First Amendment protects, how money works, and the basics of U.S. history. This phenomenon of not knowing is not limited to American students. Japanese students, a 1997 survey found, didn’t know when the Pacific War began. Nor is it limited to young people raised in an age of permissive parenting. A survey of American adults found that only 27 percent could name two branches of government. That was in 1952.
Much of this is genuinely worrying, but one suspects such findings reflect mainly the relative narrowness of people’s interests along with the brute fact that one tends to forget what one has no occasion to use or otherwise recall. What’s the third law of thermodynamics? Name your state representative. What was the War of 1812 fought over? I don’t mean to dispute that there are all sorts of things an educated person should now and often does not. Our theory of government, for example, depends on citizens being able to distinguish between legitimate uses of government power and actions that suggest a move to establish tyranny, which would seem to require more knowledge of our Constitution than most people possess. But in light of how widespread our ignorance is, it’s easy to assume that is a function of a flawed educational process, or even no educational process whatsoever.
So no, that only 8 percent of high school students surveyed say “slavery was the central cause of the Civil War” does not indicate, as the reliably ideological Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) says, that we “tend to subscribe to a progressive view of American history that can acknowledge flaws only to the extent that they have been addressed and solved.” Although I can’t speak for what’ going on in the rest of the country, the students I’ve encountered have plainly been notified in high school, and before then, that race prejudice in America is an ongoing problem with deep historical roots. Admittedly, they are not taught the view that the SPLC prefers, if the SPLC’s invocation of Ta Nehisi Coates is any indication, that the country today is properly described as predominantly white supremacist. But Ta Nehisi Coates’s interpretation of the American present shouldn’t guide our history teachers.
I know the SPLC wants us to imagine that the reason students don’t say slavery is the central cause of the Civil War is that our teaching corps and teaching standards are insufficiently bold and progressive. But can we decide what the most progressive interpretation is once and for all, so teachers can know how not to be suspected of aiding and abetting white supremacy? My own students—and I teach American Political Thought regularly—have often somehow absorbed the idea that the North fought the war for strictly pragmatic reasons and that Lincoln, in particular, had no interest in ending slavery (over the years, some have told me they’d heard Lincoln owned slaves). That is to say, they have learned that the interpretation according to which Lincoln fought a war over slavery gives too much credit to the United States and understates the grip of white supremacy in the North. Until recently, it was avant-garde and progressive to deny that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Now apparently, it’s reactionary to deny that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Can American teachers be blamed if they did not get whatever newsletter announced this change?
No doubt, the way in which history is taught in our schools could be improved. Moreover, I would be glad if most students came around to the view that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. But the SPLC does us no favors in pretending that the cause of our troubles is the failure of public schools only to hammer home with sufficient force the latest conventional wisdom of the left.
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