For 10 years, students in Texas have used a history textbook that says not all slaves were unhappy

On April 18, a class of eighth graders at the Great Hearts Monte Vista North charter school in San Antonio, Texas, received a homework assignment that would spark a nationwide controversy. A worksheet, titled “The Life of Slaves: A Balanced View,” asked students to list the negative and positive aspects of slavery.

A photo of the worksheet was published on Facebook, sparking widespread outrage and condemnation. US House representative Joaquin Castro of Texas tweeted his disbelief, calling the assignment “absolutely unacceptable.”

Joaquin Castro

@JoaquinCastrotx

This is absolutely unacceptable. A @GreatHeartsTX charter school in San Antonio asked students to complete a “balanced view” assignment about slavery, requiring them to list the “positive aspects” of slave life. The teacher worked from a @pearson textbook.

Upset parents complained to the school’s superintendent, Aaron Kindel, who launched an investigation into the incident, suspended the teacher who’d distributed the worksheet, and announced an audit of the textbook associated with the lesson. In a statement issued the day after the incident, Kindel said, “there is no debate about slavery. It is immoral and a crime against humanity.”

But while the homework assignment may have been an isolated event, students at Great Hearts charter schools have been using a textbook that wildly mischaracterizes slavery for roughly a decade. Quartz found that Prentice Hall Classics: A History of the United States, published by the Pearson, includes this description of slavery (emphasis added):

But the “peculiar institution,” as Southerners came to call it, like all human institutions should not be oversimplified. While there were cruel masters who maimed or even killed their slaves (although killing and maiming were against the law in every state), there were also kind and generous owners. The institution was as complex as the people involved. Though most slaves were whipped at some point in their lives, a few never felt the lash. Nor did all slaves work in the fields. Some were house servants or skilled artisans. Many may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other.

Representatives for Pearson also said the worksheet was in no way associated with the company. But the worksheet’s request for a “balanced view” of slavery appears entirely in keeping with the textbook’s revisionist history. The textbook has been used every year since 2008 by eighth graders attending the Great Hearts charter schools in Texas. This year, about 240 students attended the classes that used the misleading textbook.

In a statement, Pearson distanced itself from the views expressed in the book, saying that it promoted an “antiquated viewpoint, which is wrong, offensive, and long outdated.” The publisher said also that the text has not been published or updated since 2007. “The book is out of print and we have ceased sales of the book,” said a spokesperson for Pearson.

Per the company’s records, the book hasn’t been promoted in over a decade, and hasn’t sold any copies since 2014. Pearson didn’t have any record of it being adopted by Great Hearts.

In addition, although the book has not been recalled, the company says the passage in question is used internally as an example of how a subject such as slavery ought not to be explained.

Just over two weeks after the incident, Great Hearts concluded its internal investigation and announced the results in a letter signed by Kindel and sent to the students’ families yesterday morning. In the letter, the school calls the assignment “not consistent with Great Hearts philosophy,” but declines to take further action against the teacher. In fact, other than announcing a training, the superintendent gives very little information about the teacher’s motivation and simply writes that “there was no harmful intent on the part of the teacher and the broader context of the treatment of slavery in the course left no ambiguity regarding its immorality.” A copy of the letter can be found below:

Dear Great Hearts parents,

Thank you to our community of students, faculty and parents for your patience while Great Hearts has been working to gather the facts regarding the recent eighth grade history assignment at Monte Vista North.

After conducting a fair and thorough review we found that, while the assignment was certainly not consistent with Great Hearts philosophy, there was no harmful intent on the part of the teacher and the broader context of the treatment of slavery in the course left no ambiguity regarding its immorality. As such, the teacher will be reinstated after training is completed.

As an organization, Great Hearts is always looking to improve the support and training we provide, not just for faculty, but all Great Hearts employees, including leadership. In the coming weeks we will be conducting training to help ensure all Great Hearts’ campuses remain inclusive and welcoming to scholars from all backgrounds. We have also made the determination to replace the current American History textbook.

Rest assured Great Hearts remains committed to the values and pedagogy that have made it your school of choice, including the Socratic Method. The entire Great Hearts team, both in the schools and the district office, is working hard to ensure the education you’ve come to expect remains intact.

Lastly, I will be hosting a series of coffee chats with parents and Great Hearts Leadership, including our co-founder Dr. Dan Scoggin. We look forward to sharing these dates with you very soon. In the meantime, we invite parents with any remaining questions or concerns to reach out to us directly at info@greatheartstx.org.

Gratefully,

Aaron Kindel – Superintendent

Dejah Behnke, the vice president of Great Hearts Texas, told Quartz that the school had used the book only occasionally. Now the book has been withdrawn from classes, she said. From now until the end of this school year, teachers will only be using primary sources like the US Constitution.

The book will be replaced in the coming school year. As Behnke said, “it was time.”

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