Both race in the classroom and the New York Times’s 1619 Project have been the subject of recent state legislative efforts, heated debate, and extensive press coverage, both at Education Next (see, for example, “Critical Race Theory Collides with the Law,” legal beat, Fall 2021, and “The 1619 Project Enters American Classrooms,” features, Fall 2020) and elsewhere. The post-George Floyd racial reckoning and the new Juneteenth federal holiday have roused attention toward teaching the history of slavery in America. As part of our continuing coverage of these issues, we asked some of the nation’s foremost scholars and practitioners to respond to the prompt, “How should K–12 schools teach about slavery in America? What pitfalls should teachers and textbooks avoid? What facts and concepts should they stress? Are schools generally doing a good or bad job of this now?”
The forum contributors are:
- Allen C. Guelzo, who is director of the James Madison Program Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship and senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University.
- Daina Ramey Berry, who is Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History and chairperson of the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin.
- David W. Blight, who is Sterling Professor of American History at Yale University and who wrote the introductory essay for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2019 report Teaching Hard History: Slavery, which he draws upon here.
- Ian V. Rowe, who is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior visiting fellow at the Woodson Center.
- Adrienne Stang, who is director of social studies for the Cambridge, Massachusetts, public schools, and Danielle Allen, who is James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and a candidate for governor of Massachusetts.
- Robert Maranto, who is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and who from 2015–20 served on the Fayetteville School Board.
Their answers in some cases reached past the prompt to even higher-level questions about the purpose, or purposes, of history or social-studies education: To explode complacency among students and to “introduce them to the human condition, the drama, the travail of love and hate, and of exploitation and survival in history,” as David W. Blight puts it? To offer students “empowering narratives of personal and collective agency,” as Adrienne Stang and Danielle Allen put it? Or to “inspire a reverence for liberty and the American experiment,” as Ian Rowe says? The contentiousness around the questions about “how” and “what” in slavery education may well be related in part to the horrors of the underlying story and to the remnants of Civil War rifts. Perhaps too, though, the debates point to unresolved questions, or at least multiple answers, about the “why.”