slavery, mathematics, education

There has been a lot of outrage over this news story:

Some Georgia parents are outraged after they say an elementary school used examples of slavery and beatings to teach their children about math.

The problems in question appeared on a third grader’s math assignment.

One problem said, ‘Each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave work?’

But the questions didn’t stop there.

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

Terrance Barnett was outraged when he read his son’s third grade homework assignment.

“I’m having to explain to my 8-year-old why slavery or slaves or beatings are in a math problem, that hurts,” he said.

Another father, Christopher Braxton, had a similar reaction.

“It kind of blew me away,” said Braxton, “If Frederick, if anyone got any beatings you don’t put that into the homework of any sort.” […]

A lot of people are outraged by the fact that the school would put such questions in a homework assignment.

I was not. I was outraged by the reactions of the parents.

Let me start by saying that I don’t know the full context of these math questions—of course, neither do any of the other random commentators on the internet. They all know exactly as much as I do, based on reading this one news article.  Many people who read the article seemed to think that these math questions were presented completely without any context, and completely out of the blue. They assumed that there was no discussion in the classroom about slavery, that there was no dialogue either before or after the assignment about the broader context of that period in our history.

If that assumption is correct, then I will agree that the math questions are bizarre. Presented completely on their own and without context, as they are presented in the article, they could be taken as almost being glib: making a mockery of slavery and the conditions in which slaves lived.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that these math questions were embedded in a larger curriculum plan that included a discussion of slavery, the lives of black people during the time of slavery, and discrimination and prejudice more generally.  It’s entirely possible that these math questions came after a long and involved discussion in the classroom about this terrible period in our history, the awful things that we used to do to African-Americans, and how far we have come since that time.

The fact is, based only on the very short news article cited above, we have no idea. It’s possible that the math problems really were bizarre, glib, and context-free; it’s also possible that they were part of a larger dialogue that was intended to increase awareness of discrimination in our history. We just don’t know, based on a plain reading of the text of the news article.

But there is one thing that we do know from the article: we know the reactions of the parents.

And I find the reactions of the parents despicable and abhorrent. And I am amazed that liberal-minded thinkers would react to the possibly outrageous presentation of the math problems while remaining silent on the absolutely outrageous reactions of the parents.

Let’s look a second time at the objections raised by these parents:

“I’m having to explain to my 8-year-old why slavery or slaves or beatings are in a math problem, that hurts,” [one parent] said.

“It kind of blew me away,” said [another parent], “If Frederick, if anyone got any beatings you don’t put that into the homework of any sort.”

Let’s be very clear: by their own words, the parents were not outraged because they thought the questions were racist; the parents were not outraged because they thought the questions did an inadequate job of showing sympathy to the plight of black people or the problem of civil rights.

The parents were outraged because they felt awkward explaining to their children that slaves got beaten.

Let’s take a look at that one more time: the parents did not like the questions, because they did not feel comfortable explaining to their children the terrible way that slaves were treated.

That, in my opinion, is the real problem described in this news story.

I am tired of being told that certain things should simply “not be talked about” because some parents do not know how to communicate with their children.  I am tired of being told that education has to be limited because a parent feels awkward discussing a certain topic. To tell a teacher that any topic is off-limits simply because the parent feels “icky” explaining it to their child is bad parenting, and I don’t see how it could be seen as anything but bigoted.

In the end, all that happens when you “protect” children from learning about the fact that slaves got beaten is you end up with adults who believe that slavery really wasn’t all that bad.  It’s the epitome of the “fear breeds stupidity” rule.

Some may say, “well, it just shouldn’t be in a mathematics problem.” But this is just a mis-understanding of education in general. It is a long-standing practice to teach math using word problems that both re-enforce information and topics taught in other parts of the curriculum and to demonstrate “real-world applicability” of mathematics. That is, in fact, part of the point behind using word problems instead of just presenting children with equations. With word problems, you can remind children of other information they have learned in other classes and show them that yes, mathematics is actually related to things other than mathematics.

Nobody objects to this when the math problem is about the number of Senators in Congress or the number of basketballs that can fit in a bin. The only reason that the parents are objecting to it now is, in their own words, because it’s about a topic that “hurts” them to talk about.

Well, they need to get over it. Slavery did involve beatings. Slavery did involve labor. And if you feel that the math problems are insufficient in their message, then that just means it should be the beginning of a great conversation between you and your child. If your child comes to you with tears in his eyes saying, “Why are these people being beaten?” then you should look at that as a success, not a failure, of education.  It means the conversation is starting.

The answer is to join that conversation with your child, not to stop it.


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  1. Doug says:

    Obviously, I am going to have a negative reaction to the content of the questions, but I DO agree with you- why avoid the discussion/explanation when things like this occur? Part of being a responsible parent involves explaining things your children might not understand.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Thanks Doug.

      I know that most people will disagree with me on this, but I actually even don’t think it’s NECESSARILY bad to have those questions in math homework–it all depends on the context. Like I said in the article, if it’s really embedded in a larger curriculum where the teacher discusses what life was like under slavery, the civil war, the civil rights movement, the progress that was made, and so on and so forth, I think having questions like this can be part of a larger “fabric” of a curriculum that is both informative and sensitive.

      But of course the news article presented the questions as if they were completely separated from anything like that… that’s why the questions seem so outrageous and ridiculous.

  2. Dawn says:

    I agree with you completely, and this is not the only area in which this occurs. Mental health, no one talks about it because it seems to be such an “icky” topic, but you know what, we all, each and every one of us could probably find someone around us, who have dealt with a mental health issue, but heaven forbid this be discussed because it might be rude or inconsiderate. If we talked about it more, maybe more people would have access to the information needed to help them live a better life.

    Disabled individuals, also another topic that seems to be taboo. As a parent of a child with disabilities, I have always been amazed at the reactions of some parents when my daughter is around when their child would ask them what was wrong with my daughter. The parents would turn away, would scold their child, would do everything but try to answer their child, even though their child was only curious about something he/she did not know. I was never offended by any questions and was always ready, willing, and able to explain what was “wrong” with my daughter to anyone who would ask, because I believed then, and still do, that the only way to learn anything, is to ask questions about it.

    We have become a nation of “sound bites” and the media only shares what seems to be the most inflammatory part of any story, and more topics will become just as taboo to talk about, such as slavery. I was also most shocked by the parents’ reaction to the questions, than the questions themselves simply because these parents seem to me to be very close-minded and not wanting to parent their children in a meaningful way.

  3. Dan says:

    Thank you for this article Greg. We have discussed some of the same thinking at home about these types of issues in general. People don’t get all the facts or don’t hear the real story and just start going off on things without fully understanding. I get frustrated when I read or hear about stuff like this. We are not properly educating our children if we don’t give them the facts, all the facts. Only hearing and allowing what is wanted to be heard leaves so much in question. One side of a story doesn’t make it right. There may be things each side leave out so their opinion can be more strongly re-enforced. Again, thank you for this. It stirs me up reading it. You put into words what I feel and wish to say.