“Explain whether you would have preferred to have been a slave or a factory worker in the pre-Civil War era.”
That essay question will no longer be asked of Novi Middle School students after a mother complained to the district that her daughter was upset by her classmates’ answers.
In an online story posted by WWJ, Tina James said that her daughter was offended because the “majority of the class felt that they would rather be a slave than to be a factory worker. And she was just extremely confused by that, knowing what slaves went through, she couldn’t understand why anyone would choose that.”
The students’ rationale, according to James, was that slaves had free housing, food and protection. But she and her daughter argue that those things were not free.
James met with Stephanie Schriner, the school principal, without satisfaction. She then emailed Dr. Steve Matthews, the district’s superintendent.
“I spoke to my middle school principal, my assistant superintendent for academics and my director of student growth about this question,” Matthews said. “That is when I discovered that this was part of an Argumentative Writing Assessment.”
There were three questions:
1. Explain why Andrew Jackson was a good or a bad president.
2. Explain whether you would have preferred to have been a slave or a factory worker in the pre-Civil War era.
3. Explain whether the benefits of Manifest Destiny outweighed its negative consequences.
“Question 2 was taken from the Michigan Content Expectations for eighth-grade social studies, which state students should be able to explain the differences in the lives of free blacks (including those who escaped slavery) with the lives of free whites and enslaved peoples,” Matthews said.
After learning that this question was being asked, he made the decision to remove it from this assessment.
“In my opinion, the word ‘preferred’ is problematic,” Matthews said. “No one would prefer to be a slave. No one would prefer to be a factory worker in the pre-Civil War era. However, asking students to compare those two stations in life is not appropriate.”
Matthews says the teachers at the middle school are committed educators who were attempting to get students to think. They understood that slavery was awful and were not making a value judgment, but rather were attempting to help students explore life in pre-Civil War America.
“Slavery is a horrible, degrading institution,” Matthews said. “People were owned like cattle or other possessions. We need to help students understand the institution of slavery and its horrible, often life-threatening, aspects. Factory workers clearly endured some extremely negative environments, but they were in no way commensurate with or equal to slavery.”
Matthews said the district will be reviewing how to address the issue of slavery to make sure to underscore its brutality and its inhumane treatment of African Americans.
Matthews and James are meeting this Friday to talk.