KKK questions in the 5th grade, and the ‘virtues of slavery’

They may look scary, but look at it from their perspective, kids...

They may look scary, but look at it from their perspective, kids…

Well, we’re in The New York Times again. This time it’s for asking a bit much of 5th-graders in Irmo:

“You are a member of the K.K.K.,” the fifth-grade homework assignment read. “Why do you think your treatment of African-Americans is justified?”

The work sheet, given on Thursday as part of a lesson on the Reconstruction period, caused an outcry after one student’s uncle, Tremain Cooper, posted a photo of the assignment on Facebook.

“This is my little 10-year-old nephew’s homework assignment today,” he wrote. “He’s home crying right now.”

Mr. Cooper identified the teacher as Kerri Roberts of Oak Pointe Elementary School in Irmo, S.C., a suburb of Columbia, and added, “How can she ask a 5th grader to justify the actions of the KKK???”

Reached by phone, Ms. Roberts’s husband said she was unavailable and was “not going to comment on anything.”…

Hoo, boy.

Of course, that’s a perfectly fine question to ask, to get the ol’ gray matter working — in a graduate poli sci course. I think it’s a shame that Ms. Roberts — who is on suspension pending investigation of the incident — isn’t commenting, because I would dearly love to know the thinking behind asking 5th-graders to tackle it.

Had she even looked at the lesson before she passed it out? Or was this enterprise on her part? Had she decided to go for a real challenge, asking her students to reach for understanding beyond their years?

One thing I’ll say in defense of this: It’s a more reasonable question than this one asked in California:

In February, second graders at Windsor Hills Elementary School in Los Angeles were asked to solve a word problem: “The master needed 192 slaves to work on plantation in the cotton fields. The fields could fill 75 bags of cotton. Only 96 slaves were able to pick cotton for that day. The missus needed them in the Big House to prepare for the Annual Picnic. How many more slaves are needed in the cotton fields?”

Correct answer: “That’s a trick question! Masters don’t have to do math!”

Of course, we have at least one person here in South Carolina who might love to be asked such a question. His letter to the editor appeared in The State today:

Teach truth about the virtues of slavery

The recent controversy about Confederate monuments and flags ultimately revolves around one man and one question. The man is John C. Calhoun, the great philosopher and statesman from South Carolina, and the spiritual founding father of the Confederacy. The question is: Was Calhoun right or wrong when he argued, from the 1830s until his death in 1850, that the South’s Christian slavery was “a positive good” and “a great good” for both whites and blacks?

If Calhoun was wrong, then there may be grounds for removing monuments and flags.

But if Calhoun was right, the monuments and flags should stay and be multiplied, blacks should be freed from oppressive racial integration so they can show the world how much they can do without white folk, the Southern states should seize their freedom and independence, and the North should beg the South’s pardon for the war.

Calhoun’s views are unpopular today because, since 1865, the Yankee-imposed education system has taught all Americans that the South’s Christian slavery was evil and that everyone is equal. But unpopularity cannot make a truth untrue, and popularity cannot make error truth.


“If Calhoun was right….”

Excuse me while I sit here and try to come up with a justification of Mr. McCuen’s point of view. It might be on the six-weeks test…

This is where the South Carolina Court of Appeals sits.

This is where the South Carolina Court of Appeals sits.

10 thoughts on “KKK questions in the 5th grade, and the ‘virtues of slavery’

  1. Claus2

    It’s a simple question, and a 5th grader should know it’s a hypothetical question. What next, cry because you’re selected to be an Indian in Cowboys and Indians? Oh wait… kids can’t play that game anymore.

    Poor little snowflake… his mom should run out and buy him a new video game. Maybe the latest Grand Theft Auto, the one with bonus points for running over drug dealers and hookers.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Obviously, you’ve chosen to focus on the wrong thing.

      When the uncle said the child was crying, I thought a couple of things. One was, if I had a nephew who was crying, I probably wouldn’t share that with the world — which could make it harder on the kid. Another was that if the boy was upset, part of it might be because he didn’t like being at the center of controversy through no fault of his own.

      As for “It’s a simple question,” you’re kidding, right? It’s never a simple question to ask anyone to explain another person’s thinking, especially thinking as extreme as this. To ask a 5th-grader to tackle it is beyond absurd…

      1. Claus2

        I disagree, the kid was never at the center of a controversy… he was asked a “what if” question. Change “KKK” to “All Boys Clubhouse” and “African-Americans” to “girls” and there would be no controversy. If the kid can mentally answer the latter, he can answer the former. 5th graders aren’t exactly ignorant to history.

          1. Claus2

            “No Girls Allowed”

            Some of you people read WAY too much into this. The kid wasn’t asked to march, he was asked his hypothetical reasoning. It doesn’t mean he has to agree with it, it’s done in a debate all the time, one topic, two sides. You don’t have to agree with the side you’re asked to argue.

  2. JesseS

    “Of course, that’s a perfectly fine question to ask, to get the ol’ gray matter working — in a graduate poli sci course.”

    5th grade seems a bit young for that question. Granted I have no idea what reading material the kids had that led to the question. It could have been taken from page 175, paragraph 3 in bold print from a history text used throughout the nation that said, “The KKK felt that slavery was justified because they believed that whites were superior to African-Americans.” End of story.

    I’m also not sure if it’s a question only grad students should be asking. 8th or 9th grade AP history? Then again I’m a history major so I’m kind of biased.

    We are perfectly content asking undergrads why the Nazis felt justified (and if that one is now off limits we really are a country struggling with emotional fragility). In high school we wouldn’t bat an eye asking AP students to explain why the US lacked any moral authority during the Revolution because of America’s founding sins of genocide and white supremacy.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, I was overstating the case.

      My first thought was that I had a history teacher or two in high school who might have started such a conversation with us. And of course in my “American Problems” course when I was a senior, we were reading and discussing “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and other challenging stuff.

      But I couldn’t quite decide whether I was certain that one of those teachers would have said, “Pretend you’re in the KKK, and explain why you’re better than black people.” That might have been a proposition too far, even for those teachers I had in the ’60s.

      So I said “grad students” because I felt like I was on surer ground there. Of course, nowadays, I suppose the discussion would be preceded by some trigger warnings, at least in some corners of academia…

    2. Rose

      My son is in 5th grade, and they covered the KKK during their studies on Reconstruction. It was just like JesseS said. A straightforward question with a straightforward answer based on their text books.
      Last year, they had to learn the causes and arguments of the Civil War.
      I suppose the “you are there” or “pretend to be” idea is to spark some interest beyond straight facts? But it’s risky. There are numerous articles on teachers who have had students pretend to be slaves – even taping their wrists and having them lie down in the pattern they were kept in in the holds of the slave ships:
      Pretty darn stupid.

  3. Bart Rogers

    The 5th grader is a young African-American boy, enough said. And if anyone is too damn dense to understand why the boy was crying, think again if you are even capable of maintaining a simple train of thought and can connect the dots.

  4. David Carlton

    Is nothing sacred any more in SC? Brad just had the temerity to put distance between himself and John C. Calhoun, who in my Jim-Crow-era youth was the closest thing to God on Earth to white South Carolinians. Of course, letters like the one he quotes do clarify the mind wondrously. It’s good to know that some people in my native state are seriously coming to terms with its past. But how many?


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