I miss the simple days of 1 + 1 = 2

5 Mar

Here’s the headline that first appeared in early January 2012: “Slavery Examples Used In Georgia School Worksheet Upsets Parents”  (http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/02/16/146921508/birth-control-latest-collision-between-individual-conscience-and-society).

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, teachers at Beaver Ridge Elementary School gave students these math word problems:

Each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?

If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week?

Shock and outrage ensued. In fact, shock and outrage continue to ensue over here. So much so that I’ve had to sit on this story for a while. What is there to say?

Well, for one thing, I’ve heard this story–at least, a variation of it–before: a history teacher at a SF Bay Area high school (both of which will go unnamed) was teaching students about the Civil War and decided to bring it to life for the class through role play. Points for creativity and experiential education, right? 

But the simulation was not all fun and education for everyone: an African-American student was appalled when the teacher assigned her the role of a pro-slavery Confederate soldier. She felt alone in her objections and unable to talk directly to the teacher (even though, or perhaps because, she liked and respected him). When the issue did finally come to his attention–via parents and the administration–the teacher was shocked and apologetic. Like the Beaver Ridge teachers, he hadn’t meant any harm.

Intention notwithstanding, the incidents at both schools seem to say something not only about what we’re taught but how we learn it. In both cases, the teachers treated history as something removed, neutral and even safe–something colorful to illustrate a division problem or role play with gusto. And they treated their students as equal and impartial consumers of that history. It leaves me wondering what the point of learning history is, if we’re supposed to regard it disinterestedly at arm’s length?

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