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In an 8th Grade classroom of a charter school in Texas, a teacher hands out an assignment: to list the “pros” and “cons” under the heading “The Life of Slaves: A Balanced View”. Of course this was inappropriate, but not for the reasons everyone thinks. According to one article, the exercise was “a precursor to the class reading former slaves’ accounts of their lives in slavery.”

The reporting and reactions say a lot, and it’s disturbing.

The article says students were asked “to list the positive aspects of slavery”. Except they weren’t. They were asked to use materials from a textbook to see what they could find as negative and positive details of the experience of slavery, not the institution.

One father was quoted, saying, “What the hell is this revisionist history lesson trying to achieve here?!?” Except there was no talk about the details of the history lesson, at all — only an assignment asking students to think and write.

Even the school weighs in, saying “[T]here is no debate about slavery. It is immoral and a crime against humanity.” Except there was nothing in the assignment saying otherwise. There was no moral conclusion or debate, nor any reason to believe that was the intention. I’m sure it would be fine if one could only think of “cons” and leave the other column blank, or surmise some “pro” and open it up for examination and discussion. In many classrooms, that’s called “learning”.

But is was still wrong to put it out there for two compelling, damning reasons. First, it is insensitive given our social and political climate. We are forbidden to talk about charged topics, including things like race issues or history, outside of carefully prescripted narratives.* Secondly, the general public, which includes parents in general, are not capable of the critical thinking necessary to understand the assignment was about exactly that — critical thinking.

Maybe it’s bad judgment in terms of expecting maturity of discourse at that age. I would even suggest the teacher was asking children to attempt what adults clearly cannot do. Even the school is either oblivious of the purpose of the assignment or must pretend to be so in order to keep the pitchforks at bay.

Let’s agree they should have known better. But it’s a reflection on us, not them.

The Lost Art

Critical thinking means examining other points of view dispassionately, without bias. There are positive and negative aspects and consequences of anything, no matter how good or bad, at least in the real world. It’s a tremendously valuable mental skill to be able to do this against our feelings and prejudices about an issue in order to even discuss what is and is not justified. We can’t pretend to weigh information if only one of the scales is used.

In this example, we could say, “Slaves received housing, food, and healthcare and often were cared for into old age past their working lives, something employers didn’t afford their workers at the time.” Doesn’t even matter if that’s inaccurate or misleading in the big picture. The assignment forces the student to list a possible argument they may not agree with because such arguments exist. That’s intellectual maturity.

If you are offended by that, you are utterly missing the point and are failing to learn anything from the assignment. It’s not an effort to qualify or quantify or morally judge something, only to more closely examine it, even if it leads to an already obvious conclusion (if that is even the point). More importantly, we should be able to examine and deal with facts that don’t support our conclusions, not just those that do.

Someone could mention Hitler liked children and had few vices. Does this necessarily make them a fan? Is this meant to downplay or deny his negative traits and actions? You have no reason to believe that. It’s an honest statement — a part of the puzzle if you care to go beyond simple answers. Considering the possibility a large issue isn’t black and white doesn’t have to be taken as trying to justify an evil. In fact, it’s the sign of someone who can hold mature, civil discourse with those they disagree with and even understand other points of view. (It may even mean they have the rare, almost deific ability to change their mind.)

Yet so many people desperately jump into assumptions about what isn’t even being said when confronted with emotionally charged issues just because of the topic. If we can build the mental fortitude not to keep doing this, we can save everyone a LOT of unnecessary contention and hard feelings.

But first we have to let people teach critical reasoning, perhaps by handing out assignments just like this one.

Incidentally, this particular issue is why Disney’s “Song of the South” is banned in the United States. It portrays characters who happen to be slaves in a hypothetical everyday life without any expected social commentary of horror. Ask a friend overseas to send you a copy and form your own opinion.