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.