Slavery Lesson Exposes Flaws in U.S. Education

Not only has a mock slave auction humiliated a black fifth-grader, but it also exemplifies the kind of teaching that is destroying an entire generation's chances for success.

Nikko Burton
Nikko Burton

The case of a black boy in Ohio who felt humiliated after being assigned to participate in a mock slave auction exposes a number of flaws in our education system. Nikko Burton’s fifth-grade class in Columbus, Ohio, was divided into “masters and slaves” as part of a social studies lesson about slavery. The 10-year-old black student, who was put in the slave group, says that students playing the masters would “look in your mouth and feel your legs and stuff and see if you’re strong.”

“His mom, understandably, was furious,” according to the Daily News. ” ‘He felt degraded,’ she told the television station. ‘I feel like that was totally inappropriate; it was racist and it was degrading.’ “

The lesson was insensitive at best; at worst, it was poor pedagogy, the all-too-common type of pedagogy that is condemning a generation of students.

The “slave-master” lesson is what is referred to as “Crayola curriculum.” Students spend blocks of time in exercises such as ” … creating a map to illustrate the story’s setting, make a game to show the story’s theme, put together a collage from magazine photographs, or assemble a scrapbook or photograph album for the character.”

The problem with this kind of teaching, and the damage it can do to children like Nikko, goes far beyond the humiliation he experienced in the slave-master exercise. Although students may have different learning styles, we must focus on teaching children like Nikko to write, to express themselves and to convince others if they are going to graduate and succeed in the workplace. “Soft” lessons are a copout. Why aren’t we asking students to read, discuss or write analytically in every class, every day?

Insufficient emphasis on literacy is one of the reasons a typical black boy student in Nikko’s home state of Ohio has, at best, a four-in-10 chance of graduating from high school. According to Yes We Can: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males, the Ohioan black male high school graduation rate for the 2007-2008 school year was 41 percent, while the white male rate was 78 percent. Overall, only 56 percent of black students in Ohio graduate from high school within four years, while 84 percent of whites graduate within the same time frame.