Education

Social studies should teach more than ‘slavery was good for the economy,’ critic says

Criticism of the treatment of slavery in Kentucky’s proposed K-12 social studies standards could lead to revisions

The Kentucky Board of Education is asking for possible revisions to social studies standards for public school students following criticism of the treatment of slavery, immigration and other topics.
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The Kentucky Board of Education is asking for possible revisions to social studies standards for public school students following criticism of the treatment of slavery, immigration and other topics.

Criticism of the way slavery, immigration and Native Americans are handled in proposed social studies standards is prompting state Board of Education members to ask for revisions.

Social studies is one of several Kentucky academic standards that must be reviewed and revised under a process laid out in a state law passed in 2017. The standards outline the minimum knowledge and skills Kentucky students should learn in each grade level.

Susan Weston of Danville asked state board members at a Wednesday meeting in Frankfort to reject the social studies content guideline standards “because their approach to immigrants and non-white Americans is not what we should teach our children.”

“Here is what our children will learn in U.S. history about slavery: ‘It was good for the economy,’” said Weston, a consultant to education groups. “That’s not the right thing for Kentucky children to know if that’s the only standard about slavery in the United States. They should know that it was terrible, they should know that enslaved people struggled mightily and boldly for their liberty, to protect their families, to practice their faith.”

Social studies teachers from across the state have been working on revisions of the Kentucky Academic Standards for social studies. Board members gave the standards a first reading, or review, Wednesday and are set to take final action in February.

After Weston spoke, board Vice Chair Milton Seymore asked fellow members whether more work could be done on the standards.

Seymore said that as “a descendent of slaves” growing up in the segregated south, “I know slavery is a bad word and I know a lot of people don’t want to deal with that word, but it is history and we can’t simply bypass it because people don’t want to talk about it ... we’ve got to talk about the things that hurt.”

One of the standards Weston took issue with said, “Describe the impact of slavery and slave trade on the development and growth of the British, colonial and U.S. economies.”

“Where is the experience of being enslaved?” said Weston, who said she was not speaking Wednesday as an education consultant but as a private citizen.

Another standard dealt with how the “desire for cheap labor led to slavery” and a third standard required that students “assess demographic, social and cultural consequences of forced migration and the expansion of plantation-based slavery into the Americas between 1500-1888.”

Weston said there should be also be standards dealing with the evil of slavery and she questioned the focus on “the profitability of human bondage.”

Board member Gary Houchens said slavery is noted multiple times in the current standards but there is a concern “about both the level of detail about the experience of slavery and how that experience was interpreted.”

Weston said the standards also leave out a time between 1877 and 1900, which she said was a time of segregation and “massive violence.”

Additionally, Weston said Native Americans are not mentioned in the standards. And she said while there are two social studies standards dealing with immigrants, “what happened to immigrants and what mattered to immigrants” is missing.

Houchens said that people working on the standards will be asked to take another look to see if revisions are needed.

The committee would also specifically review whether there needs to be more detail in social studies standards about the Vietnam War, he said, before the board takes final action.

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