December 11, 2019

A Missouri teacher is on leave, the NAACP is looking for an apology, and some kids are going to have to be re-educated about why we don't put prices on human beings.

Fifth-graders in Mehlville, Missouri were given an assignment intended to contemplate free markets and wealth. How very Kochian. Among the various questions was this:

“You own a plantation or farm and therefore need more workers. You begin to get involved in the slave trade industry and have slaves work on your farm. Your product to trade is slaves.

Set your price for a slave. _____________ These could be worth a lot.

You may trade for any items you’d like.”

We've seen a lot of lessons in the past few years like this, and they're all terrible. But this one is more terrible than the others because it centers the lesson not on slavery and why it's wrong, but on the market-driven factors surrounding the ownership and dehumanization of African-Americans. It normalizes the idea that Black people are property and not human which is absolutely unthinkable in this day and age. Or at least, you'd think so.

Long-time readers of this site may recall my extensive coverage of the Great Texas Textbook Battles of 2010 and the fight to keep at least some balance on the Texas school board evaluating those new textbooks. I am convinced beyond all doubt that these recurrent lessons which are intended at their core to marginalize and dehumanize Black people are the ugly product of those battles.

In 2010, at the height of the conflict, I wrote this about what they were doing:

The biggest myth conservatives continue to perpetuate is this idea of business as champion of 'individual rights and freedoms.' Nowhere is it more obvious than these blatant rewrites of Texas social studies and history textbooks. Rather than present all facts, events, and people of a time, they only choose those which indoctrinate students with a conservative narrative.

Liberty granted by conservatives is no liberty at all. Their cynical viewpoint assumes inability on the part of most citizens to think critically about the role of people, places, things, business and invention in the context of history in order to form their own conclusion. Instead they co-opt the religious right and use culture wars to invent a fiction to spoon-feed to our children.

Now with those words in mind, consider these pieces of the same "Set a price for a slave" assignment:


In this first reflection there is no acknowledgement that any part of their assignment included setting a price for another human being. It's just about "wealth" and what money is "leftover." I'll stop here and note that it should be "left over" since remaining funds are not the same as food you ate the night before, but whatever.

Here's the second "reflection:"


That last question, hoo boy. People are "goods?" They are when the point of the lesson is to reflect on wealth and to devalue humanity.

Texas textbooks were important in 2010 because they would be purchased by many other states, just as California textbooks are. The volume purchased by states like Texas and California means that other states will adopt one or the other of them. So for students whose books are the Texas version, this is the guiding principle:

“The atmosphere of a free market, as well as a free society that encourages the exchange of ideas, can and often does lead to innovation and scientific and technological discoveries. All these conditions promote growth in the economy and often improve the quality of everyday life.”

Even if it means buying up your fellow human beings, it seems. This assignment was terrible, because this is what happens when the John Birch Society writes the textbooks and schools uncritically adopt them.

I wrote this in 2010 and it's proven itself true:

Still, in all the reports I've seen about this, there's a certain derision from the left that sends danger signals off in me. Laugh at the Texas School Board at your own peril. They have just succeeded in approving a statewide curriculum indoctrinating students, educating them on a single point of view, and threatening our national curriculum in far too many ways. To shrug them off or paint them as buffoons misses their larger, and largely successful, plan.

This lesson is but one example.

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