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School history assignment stirs up a storm in Jamaica over how slavery should be taught

Freeing a Slave from the Slave Stick, Jamaica, ca.1875-ca.1940. Wikimedia Commons image; photo uploaded by Ashley Van Haeften, CC BY 2.0.

Hillel Academy, a private school in an upscale area of Kingston, was at the centre of a recent debate over a history assignment for Grade 9 students which asked students to create a model for the punishment of a slave.

The wave of online anger began on Facebook, then graduated swiftly to Twitter, where a relatively short-lived but heated discussion began — on history, slavery, race, and class — leaving more questions than answers about how a deeply traumatic period in Jamaica's history should be taught.

The assignment also required students to “discuss [their] chosen punishment type as an example of European civility” since “one justification for the enslavement of African people was their lack of civility”. Details of the history paper were shared in a Facebook post, along with the comment:

So Hillel Academy Jamaica is allegedly asking children to use their creativity to re-create the harm that was done during slavery in written form. The mission is to expand student’s perspective on situations. So if this is really the case
1) Stop this lesson now.
2) Healing, truth and reconciliation is what you should be teaching the affluent and privileged children of a former plantation society, not recount and imaginative wickedness.
3) You are teaching children to be Slave masters. While this may be useful to a white man’s world capitalist society in 1764, it affects the collective esteem of a progressive and civil society in 2018.
4) Ask the directors of the No Violence In love campaign to come speak to your students about the effects of violent narratives in impressionable minds and the need to replace them with new ideas of harmony and empathy.

The Facebook user who shared the assignment added the school's feedback on the issue:

I have hard copy of test and got soft copy of school response:

‘There is some overreaction and I will explain why. The project is based on putting history into perspective. When older kids were at Hillel learning this the method of teaching slavery was largely rote, i.e. just simply regurgitating the facts. Today the methods of teaching history has (sic) changed. The sensitivity of the subject has not changed it is the way it's being taught that has. Students are encouraged to have balanced perspectives wherever possible.’

Founded in 1969 by the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica, Hillel is a non-profit, non-denominational institution that goes from pre-school all the way up to high school level. It is regarded as a school for Jamaica's elite; its 750-strong population also includes a fairly large contingent of international students. The fees are considerably higher than those for state-run schools and, in addition to Jamaican examinations, the school offers courses for the International Baccalaureate and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools/AdvancedEd. With a less traditional approach to learning, its motto is “Learning for Living”. According to its website, its goals are to create a student who is more “open-minded, a risk-taker, inquirer, balanced, thinker.”

‘Bright students given the assignment, would write that there is no justification for slavery’

The school's explanation about the assignment, however, did little to assuage the anger of Twitter users, who were particularly miffed at the use of the word “justification”:

As if in response, a radio station quickly reported comments by a well-known history professor:

One Twitter user suggested that the “bakra masters” (the term means a white slave master) at the school were imposing their perspective on slavery:

There were numerous attacks on the school itself — and its students. However, one social media user disputed the common perception that the school is predominantly white:

Another Twitter user shared a photo of a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King praising Jamaica's perceived racial harmony during a 1965 visit to the island, observing:

An attempt ‘to dissect the warped mentality that was used to justify slavery'?

Realising the scope of the fallout, the school apologised in a statement from the Board of Directors, which was shared both online and in mainstream media, but the discussion had already turned to the persistent question of race and class in Jamaica:

Another respected teacher gave a balanced but severe critique, which was shared on Twitter in an image. The English teacher concluded:

Teacher, you have erred big time, and I suspect it's primarily because you did not manipulate the English language well enough to structure your question in such a way that the students examine critically the arguments for and against slavery, without leaving your class thinking that there were merits in the enslavement of blacks.

A few people pointed out that the history of — and “justification” for — slavery was regularly taught in Jamaican schools, just not in this way. Another recalled her own study of Caribbean History at high school, noting that such an assignment is not unusual:

A human rights lawyer, who advocates for slavery reparations, sought to analyse the purpose of the assignment:

‘Are private schools allowed to teach anything they want?’

Would this have been an acceptable assignment in other contexts? many Twitter users asked:

So what went wrong at Hillel? Netizens began to talk about accountability in curriculum planning. One media personality tweeted:

Others took a broader view of the conversation by reflecting on modern-day slavery:

After the social media outrage, the question remains: How should the painful history of the Caribbean, including colonisation and slavery, be taught to the region's younger generations? Judging by the backlash, this recent attempt at “innovation”, even if well intentioned, may have done more harm than good.

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