The Corner

Culture

When College Students Think America Invented Slavery

Here’s a revealing story, from the College Fix

For 11 years, Professor Duke Pesta gave quizzes to his students at the beginning of the school year to test their knowledge on basic facts about American history and Western culture.

The most surprising result from his 11-year experiment? Students’ overwhelming belief that slavery began in the United States and was almost exclusively an American phenomenon, he said.

“Most of my students could not tell me anything meaningful about slavery outside of America,” Pesta told The College Fix. “They are convinced that slavery was an American problem that more or less ended with the Civil War, and they are very fuzzy about the history of slavery prior to the Colonial era. Their entire education about slavery was confined to America.”

Not only did professor Pesta’s students demonstrate a formidable level of ignorance, they were also increasingly politicized:

What’s more, he began to observe a shift in his students’ quiz responses in the early 2000s. Before that time, Pesta described his students as “often historically ignorant, but not politicized.” Since the early 2000s, Pesta has found that “many students come to college preprogrammed in certain ways.”

“They cannot tell you many historical facts or relate anything meaningful about historical biographies, but they are, however, stridently vocal about the corrupt nature of the Republic, about the wickedness of the founding fathers, and about the evils of free markets,” Pesta said. “Most alarmingly, they know nothing about the fraught history of Marxist ideology and communist governments over the last century, but often reductively define socialism as ‘fairness.’”

In my experience, modern education reform doesn’t expand students’ knowledge of American history, it largely just shifts the focus to the Left’s favorite topics. When an overwhelming majority of students identify Thomas Jefferson as a slaveowner and not also as a former president, we know that high school instruction is skewed. When students don’t understand the historical reality and context of slavery, it’s easy to understand how they might look at America as uniquely guilty — rather than unusually committed to abolition. 

I am in favor of broadening history instruction to, for example, tell stories of the American South from the slaves’ perspective or to tell about western expansion through Native American voices, but not to the exclusion of other instruction. History is extraordinarily complex, and we don’t do anyone any favors by narrowing course offerings until they present only or mainly the preferred narrative.

Indeed, this phenomenon helps create the worst kind of student — the condescending ignoramus. They’re condescending because they know the “real” history of our nation. They know how bad we really are. Yet they truly know very little, and they certainly lack perspective. Good for Professor Pesta to introduce some balance. Now, if we can only find a few thousand professors like him, history might have a fighting chance. 

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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