Slave Math is Bad Math

by Marinka on February 23, 2013

There’s a bit of an outrage this week in NYC because some public school students in Manhattan got math word problems and as if those aren’t horrific enough, these particular ones included slaves. I don’t mean that the math problems came with math slaves to solve the problems for the kids, I mean the problems contained references to slaves that were in various situations.

I’ll recap the whole thing for you so that you don’t have to endure the indignity of reading it. This way you will save time and I will be doing a good deed and fulfilling my community service requirement that my parole officer keeps going on about.

Ok, so to recap (and possibly plagiarize): An assignment was for some 4th graders to write math problems combining math and social science and the kids came up with problems like:

One question involved a ship with 3,799 slaves. ”One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?” it asked.

I hate questions like this, because are we supposed to assume that all the dead are slaves? Weren’t there any pirates among the dead? And can you take over the ship without actually killing some of the people who are sailing the ship, like the Skipper and maybe Gilligan?

But people are understandably upset. And honestly, the teacher should have realized that these math problems were insensitive. But I also wonder, assuming that the class was studying slavery in social studies and the assignment was to combine social studies and math, what possible kind of math problems was the teacher expecting the students to come up with? Perhaps “Most Horrifying Times of Human History Math” shouldn’t be something we teach our children.


On the other hand, I’m all for teaching our citizens editing skills. Because unless there have been some recent developments, “everybody” is one word, not two. For math fans out there, one is one less than two.


Great news! I’ve been keeping up with my New Year’s Resolution and reading more. A lot more. Check out my book page for some mini-reviews and a sneak peak of what’s on my Reading List!

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Roshni February 23, 2013 at 5:45 pm

As you point out, that’s a particularly daft question, because of course, the slaves weren’t the only ones on the ship, so how on earth can one calculate how many are alive if we don’t have all the information!
Sending what wrong message? That slaves should never be encouraged to take over ships?!!


Summer February 23, 2013 at 5:59 pm

That’s what I was wondering too. How can you solve the problem without all the information. And, if they were using thematic Unit to teach the lessons maybe the question is in better context but still.


February 23, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Everybody knows that, to calculate the number of dead on the slave ship, one must count every body that appears to be lifeless.


February 23, 2013 at 10:06 pm

“every body” is a perfect example of safety math


Awesome dude February 24, 2013 at 1:23 pm


My Jewish feelings are also injured very deeply.

The blacks want to go ahead of the Jews again.

I remember uncle Moishe who said that his ancestors were slave in the Babylonian time, then Egyptians came and their descendants were breaking their asses overcharging Egyptians for the lumber during Great Pyramid Boom.

The same lumber was later resold to Romans to build a Holly Cross at 800% profit.

If you ask me our children do not need math, Chinese children will be better then them anyhow, they need more history and poetry in their life.


Tinne from Tantrums and Tomatoes February 25, 2013 at 7:17 am

And the problem is…


Lady Jennie February 25, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Or one and one IS two, if you are a disciple of safety math.


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