As someone who has taught American history in a Florida school, I’ve followed with particular interest the controversy over the state’s curriculum regarding the so-called “benefits” of slavery. The way this issue has been demagogued is nothing short of outrageous.

Florida officials last year created a working group “to review the state’s education standards relating to African American history.”

The working group’s members were recruited based on expertise in teaching K-12 history, particularly black history, in Florida. There were no political, ideological, or identity group requirements. Six of the 13 members were of African heritage. Their final recommendations were accepted by the State Board of Education and Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, without dispute.

Yet the Florida teachers union and the NAACP (which already posted a travel advisory warning that “Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals”) immediately pounced on the standards as racist.

This culminated in Vice President Kamala Harris’ flying to Florida to deliver a public tongue-lashing of those involved.

“Today, there are those in our nation who would prefer to erase or even rewrite the ugly parts of our past,” Harris said. “Those who attempt to teach that enslaved people benefited from slavery … those who insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, who try to divide our nation with unnecessary debates.”

The Democratic vice president’s remarks might carry more weight were it not for her reputation for not doing her homework before speaking. It’s doubtful that Harris bothered to read the revised curriculum before denouncing it.

The national press produced sensational headlines such as Newsweek’s “Ron DeSantis Accused of Being ‘Pro-Slavery’ Due to New Florida Curriculum.” Roll Call’s Mary Curtis joined the feeding frenzy, describing the new history standards as “Florida’s ‘why torture, whippings and having your children sold away wasn’t all THAT bad’ curriculum.”

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote that Florida’s “curriculum on slavery is an obscene revision of Black history.” But his colleague Amanda Katz took the supercilious biscuit, writing: “Nice try, Florida. Slavery was not an awesome skill-building exercise.”

All the criticism cited the same exact sentence: “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” That’s because that’s all there is.

The imaginative description in Curtis’ article for Roll Call is entirely her own, but she links to an article from the Tallahassee Democrat, which, yet again, cites only that one sentence.

Unlike most critics, National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke read the Florida curriculum. Cooke found that, of 191 times slavery was mentioned, the one sentence was the only thing irate commentators could find to whip up partisan outrage.

Even that requires an assumption of bad faith on the part of the working group, as almost the exact same sentence is to be found in Florida’s Advanced Placement African American Studies Course for 2023-24, about which no such fuss was made. Page 6 of the AP curriculum shows an impressive list of scholarly contributors.

When I taught eighth- and 11th-grade U.S. history in Florida, slavery was well covered. None of my students would have gotten the impression that it was anything but bad and dehumanizing. Yet, like anyone else who visits Mount Vernon, Monticello, or Williamsburg, my students also learned that enslaved people practiced different occupations, from farming to cooking to skilled trades.

My students learned that a few slaves were taught to read and write. (We read Frederick Douglass’ incredible autobiography in my seventh-grade class.) They knew that, while many slaves were forced to work for the Confederate army, some free blacks, like many in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, died along with more than 600,000 white Americans in the Civil War that would end slavery forever.

Podcaster-commentator Megyn Kelly recently had historian and working group member William B. Allen on her show. Allen dismissed the allegations that DeSantis, or Florida, had in any way attempted to portray slavery as positive, or to downplay the evil of the institution. Kelly rightly called all the faux outrage “disgusting media lies about the Florida curriculum.”

Lawyer Benjamin Crump, always first to arrive at a race relations crash scene, tweeted that “our children need to be taught that slavery was evil and immoral point blank period.” Perhaps that’s all the depth on the subject we should attempt.

After all, in 2022, only 13% of eighth graders were assessed above the “proficient” level in history. If they haven’t been taught the basic facts, there’s little point teaching how to interpret them.

And chances are, they’ll fall hard for the kind of manipulation that the vice president and her allies engage in so skillfully.

Maybe, to paraphrase a famous movie quote, we can’t handle the full truth.

This commentary originally was published by Tribune News Service. It has been corrected to quote Megyn Kelly, not her guest.

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