Lessons learned the hard way

February 23, 2013

The Academy Awards will be presented tonight, and two movies nominated for Best Picture, “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained,” offer different takes on the stain of American slavery.

Perhaps duly inspired, some educators have tried to put slavery at the center of their lessons recently, but a few have stumbled in particularly noteworthy fashion.

First, James Wagner, the president of Emory University in Atlanta, referenced the 1787 “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the sake of representation and the distribution of federal funds, as an example of “pragmatic” political horse-trading in an essay in an alumni magazine.

Aside from having many people fire up Wikipedia to refresh their memories about the Three-Fifths Compromise, Wagner’s comments have, needless to say, generated some heated discussion. The Emory faculty has censured Wagner, and he has since apologized for “clumsiness and insensitivity” in invoking the Three-Fifths Compromise and stressed that he believes slavery was “heinous, repulsive, repugnant and inhuman.”

But Wagner’s bumbling attempt to find a sunny side in slavery looks positively dexterous compared to a couple of fourth-grade math teachers in New York City who built word problems around slavery. An example: “One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month?”

It’s believed that this was a knuckleheaded stab at “integrated learning,” where ideas or themes are studied across multiple disciplines. But it’s a good bet that both teachers will be subject to some, um, discipline by their higher-ups.

Rather than imparting lessons, Wagner and these teachers learned some the hard way.



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