Remembering the Civil War dead

Today is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, writes Ilya Somin on Volokh Conspiracy. As Frederick Douglass said in an 1871 speech in honor of the Union war dead, we should not forget “the moral chasm between the two sides.”

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict….

. . . If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration….

But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic…. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage…. , we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

Born into slavery in Maryland, Douglass learned to read and write when it was illegal for a slave to do so.  ”He made the neighborhood boys his teachers, by giving away his food in exchange for lessons in reading and writing.” He learned oratory from a schoolbook.

School apologizes for ‘evil Jews’ assignment

“You must argue that Jews are evil” in a five-paragraph essay, using Nazi propaganda and personal experience “to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”  Hoping to teach persuasive writing, critical reading of propaganda and  history, an English teacher at Albany High School (New York) told students to pretend the teacher was a Nazi official who needed to be convinced of their loyalty.

A third of students refused to write the paper. Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said the assignment should have been worded differently and apologized. ”I don’t believe there was malice or intent to cause any insensitivities to our families of Jewish faith,” she said.

Vanden Wyngaard said the exercise reflects the type of writing expected of students under the new Common Core curriculum, the tough new academic standards that require more sophisticated writing. Such assignments attempt to connect English with history and social studies.

I’m quite sure the teacher doesn’t believe Jews are evil. But the assignment was unwise. Plenty of people still think Jews are evil. Anti-Semitic trolls lurk in the comments section of most blogs. It’s current events, not history.

If the teacher had come up with a uncontroversial assignment, would it have taught critical thinking as effectively? asks Ann Althouse.

Why not ask students to write an essay urging Germans to vote for Hitler in 1933? (Advanced students could pretend to be American communists defending the Hitler-Stalin pact.)

Integrating history with other subjects requires forethought. A New York City math teacher raised hackles earlier this year with slavery story problems that seemed to trivialize slave ship deaths and whippings.

Update: The Albany teacher has been placed on leave, reports AP. That’s an over-reaction. Meanwhile, her classes are about to begin reading Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. 

Multiplying and trivializing slavery

Integrating history and math, getting students to write math problems . . . It must have sounded like a good idea at the time. Now a fourth-grade teacher at New York City’s P.S. 59 is in hot water for  assigning “slavery word problems homework,” reports NY1.

Question 1 . . . asked:

“In a slave ship, there can be 3,799 slaves. One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?”

The second question . . .  said:

“One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)? Another slave got whipped nine times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month? How many times did the two slaves get whipped together in one month?”

Aziza Harding, a student teacher, showed the homework to Charlton McIlwain, one of her professors at NYU. The professor contacted NY1, which showed the worksheet to the principal of P.S. 59, who responded: “I am appalled by this.”

Another fourth-grade teacher’s students wrote the questions in January.

“You’re ostensibly teaching or trying to teach history or call attention to a particular historical moment, yet there’s no explanation, there’s no education, there’s no teaching going on,” McIlwain said. “And so, for someone who is probably, at nine years of age, has maybe heard of slavery but probably doesn’t know what it is really like, their first, perhaps, and most lasting impression about this historical event comes in a very abstracted, nonchalant type of thing that they have no real sense of connection to.

Harding, the student teacher, fears students will be “desensitized to this type of violence” unless they’re taught to understand the history of slavery.

 

Parent sue over book on slavery

A book on the horrors of slavery has lead to a racial discrimination lawsuit in Warren, Michigan, reports the Detroit News: Parents charge their African-American daughter suffered emotional distress and racial harassment when her fifth-grade teacher read parts of From Slave Ship to Freedom Road by Julius Lester. In one passage, an auctioneer says:  “Step right up! New shipment of n—–s just in.” And, “Nine months after you buy one of these n—–s, you will have a plantation full of n—-r babies,” according to the lawsuit.

Parents moved the girl from Margaret Black Elementary, a high-performing, predominantly white and middle-class school, to a school in a different county.

Lester, a black civil rights activist, writer and professor (and a convert to Judaism!), worked with artist Rod Brown to create a graphic depiction of slavery — including whippings and lynchings — and emancipation. Readers are asked to imagine what it’s like to be a slave, a slave master and an abolitionist.

The book is supposed to be suitable for children 10 to 15 years old, but Amazon reviewers — including two middle-school teachers — warn that the pictures and text are very disturbing. One teacher suggests sending permission slips home to parents.

” This is powerful, expect to see emotions from your students. I would not use it with students any younger than 8th grade, and that might be pushing it.”

The book may be too much for fifth graders to handle. But overestimating students’ maturity isn’t racial discrimination.

The lawsuit isn’t likely to succeed, writes Eugene Volokh on Volokh Conspiracy. The parents would have to prove “severe or pervasive” actions created “a racially offensive educational environment for the plaintiff and for a reasonable person.”