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Hammurabi’s Code Was A Teaching Moment In Sun Prairie School

February 2, 2021

It appears that school lessons from Sun Prairie are making headlines around the entire state following administrators suspending teachers who were involved in an activity for sixth graders that included a question about how the students would punish slaves. The episode is concerning. But not solely for the reasons that made for the thrust of the headlines in the news.

The lesson was meant to show the politics of ancient Mesopotamia and included one scenario that stated, ”A slave stands before you. This slave has disrespected his master by telling him ‘You are not my master’ How will you punish this slave?” It further explained that under Hammurabi’s Code the slave would be put to death.

There was a strong reaction to the lesson. As a result of the feedback, the parents of students at Patrick Marsh Middle School received an apology for a “grave error in judgment”.

But should not this lesson in the middle school be seen as a true teaching tool, that by its very nature at making people uncomfortable, also then underscores the larger lessons to be gained? We live in a time where it is very much accepted that slaveholding is absolutely immoral, and not in any way to be tolerated. We have that luxury of thinking as a result of living in the 21st century. But the long arc of human history proves that slavery was very much a part of tribes and warring parties where economic gain was marshaled by enslaving others.

Would the reaction of Sun Prairie students and parents, alike, been different had the class lesson been placed in another region and time? Let us place Vikings as the warring party in the 700s, and the Irish as the enslaved. We know that history demonstrates slavery was the backbone of their economy and the Dublin area was one of the largest slave markets of the time.

The subjugation of a people, and the owning of another person should be the issue. Not the skin color of either the warring party or the one in bondage. It was, in part, the emotional reaction to slavery that allowed for changes in the eighteenth century that started to move people and nations away from slavery. Such gut-feelings are part of the narrative that has created the history students need to study. Re-creating that emotional feeling is part of learning. I fear that at times we lose sight of the larger themes and lessons from history if we view the past solely from our current perspectives.

When we teach in too constricted of a manner it does a great disservice to the young minds that we wish to educate. Dealing truthfully with the historical immorality of our past can, and must, be a teaching moment in our classrooms.

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