School Ditches Textbook After Slavery Lesson Causes Controversy

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A school district in Massachusetts has reportedly vowed to stop using its fifth-grade U.S. history textbook following outcry from parents over a passage regarding slavery.

The two offending sentences are found on page 244 of “Harcourt Horizons: United States History,” (published in 2003) and read as follows: “Slaves were treated well or cruelly depending on their owners. Some planters took pride in being fair and kind to their slaves.” Parents who objected to the passage, according to CBS Boston, felt that it was “justifying racism,” and that “the very idea that we are putting a good face on one person owning another person is of itself, cruel.”

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The Brookline Public Schools district apparently agreed, as deputy superintendent Jennifer Fischer-Mueller told CBS Boston, “The way this book portrayed slavery was absolutely downplaying of the lives of enslaved people. Then we also came to find out that there were aspects of this chapter that were inaccurate — factually inaccurate.”

After first telling parents that the book would remain but the excerpt would not be taught, Fischer-Mueller told the news station, “It will be removed from the classrooms because we will no longer be using it. We can do that in the next month or two.” Fischer-Mueller and the central administrative office of the Brookline Public School District did not reply to requests for comment from Yahoo Parenting.

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A spokesperson for the book’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, emailed the following statement to Yahoo Parenting: “We understand the concerns that have been raised regarding the 2003 edition of US History being used in Brookline. The language in question was revised in subsequent editions. We are committed to collaborating with the Brookline public school district to support its Social Studies instructional needs.” It was updated, adds the spokesperson, “to reinforce the overall suffering experienced by enslaved people.”

The co-editor of the textbook, however, says he is “a bit surprised” to hear about the controversy. “A lot of thought, discussion, and research went into the development of the textbook,” Tyrone Howard, professor of education and director of the Black Male Institute at the University of California Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, tells Yahoo Parenting. “I’ve always been very clear about the need to talk about slavery in a complete and thorough fashion. It’s my background — African-American history — and my take is that those who are criticizing do not have a complete grasp of how slavery happened.”

Howard adds, “I’ll stand by the statements we make.” He also says while slavery was undoubtedly a “horrific institution,” a “number of scholars” have written about the tiers of treatment for slaves, as well as the tension that many white men, including Thomas Jefferson, struggled with at the time — that of “fighting for independence and freedom [from Britain] while recognizing that they were denying the freedom of others.” That, he says, “caused some deferential treatments.”

Because he has worked on many other textbooks over the years, Howard says he understands that it can be a “very politically oriented business.” And that he’s often been surprised by controversies, particularly about race and immigration issues. But, in any event, he notes that he “would’ve loved to be a part of the conversation” with the Brookline school district.

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