What's wrong with the slavery math lesson?
The reflexive bashing of teacher Jane Youn is unwarrantedComments (21)
BY JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2013, 5:06 PM
In 1941, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People released a report condemning racist school textbooks in New York City. Music books routinely referred to blacks as "darkeys," while literature anthologies called them "coons" or "Sambos." Worst of all, American history textbooks depicted slavery as a genteel institution developed by benevolent white Southerners to "civilize" savage, ignorant Africans.
All of these books were profoundly offensive to the city's African-American population, of course. But they were also full of lies, as NAACP secretary Walter White emphasized. "This study was made not on a basis of racial sensitiveness or pride," White wrote, describing the NAACP's textbook report, "but on the highest plane of historical accuracy and objectivity." Indeed, the report drew on research by pioneering black historian Carter G. Woodson to refute the textbooks' cheery portrait of life under slavery.
I thought of this episode as I read about the furor against Jane Youn, the P.S. 59 school teacher who asked her fourth graders to come up with math problems that drew on their social studies coursework. One of their questions asked how many slaves would remain on a ship, if some of them perished in a revolt; another asked how many times a slave would be whipped over the course of a month, assuming five daily floggings.
Youn reportedly distributed the questions as part of her students' homework last month. But they didn't come to light until a student-teacher from my own institution balked at handing them out to another class in the school.
I'm proud of the student-teacher for raising a red flag about the math questions, which force us to ask the biggest question of all: How should we address our nation's most profound historical wrongs? But I'm also troubled by the automatic assumption that there was something wrong about the questions, and that Youn was wrong to ask them.
The Department of Education announced that the math homework was "obviously unacceptable," and that "appropriate disciplinary action" would be taken against Youn. Her principal said she was "appalled" by the slavery questions, and that the entire school staff would receive "sensitivity training" in light of them. Meanwhile, a Daily News account called the questions "boneheaded" and "absurd."
But all of these objections presumed that the exercise trivialized slavery or desensitized children to its evils. And we don't know that.
First of all, the questions came from the children themselves. They've clearly learned something about slavery, and they're obviously thinking about it. Anyone who cares about education should be happy about that.
Second, the questions reflected an accurate grasp of the past. As a sea of scholarship has confirmed, millions of captured Africans rebelled and died during the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. How many adult Americans know or care about that? These kids do.
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