Liberal studies teachers must beware danger of tying grades to politics

Kelly Yang says students now being graded on their ability to think critically must never be penalised for their political views

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 April, 2013, 5:39am

Last week, a group of high school students in New York state were given a writing assignment to argue why Jews are evil. Their five-paragraph essay must demonstrate their ability to "think like a Nazi" using evidence from the Third Reich government propaganda. It was an exercise meant to link English class with a history lesson on the Holocaust; instead, it caused an uproar among parents, educators and the Jewish community.

While some people have called for the immediate dismissal of the teacher, others see it as an exercise in persuasive writing. "Hypothetical situations are often effective teaching tools," Rabbi Donald Cashman told one paper. "We know it's important for kids to get out of their comfort zones."

There's a big difference, though, between getting out of one's comfort zone and being pushed to take a position one doesn't agree with, especially if that position centres around hate. When it comes to easily-influenced young adults, this is especially dangerous.

I remember teaching a critical reasoning class last summer to a group of secondary students. I split the class into two and asked the students to take opposing positions on domestic workers' right of abode. To my disappointment, those opposing residency rights immediately made points which were offensive, such as the helpers "all have too many children". Those on the "yes" side started to giggle. Before the "no" group had a chance to make their second point - that "helpers are unintelligent" - I shut down the exercise and used the rest of the class time to discuss tolerance.

When it came time to write the essay, however, I still received a huge number on why helpers should have no right to abode. Most were well written. Many made strong points, like helpers do not pay income tax, but also included assertions like helpers could not contribute much to Hong Kong society. I found the essays valuable as insights into young minds. I was also thrilled to be able to give feedback. But I'd be hard pressed to assign a grade.

How do you grade a view that you think is wrong - that is, racist in this case - but is nevertheless well argued and well written? As an SAT teacher, I have often assigned students the topic, "Is it necessary to take risks to attain success?" In eight years teaching SAT writing, I've received a number of essays citing Adolf Hitler as a commendable and effective leader. I return these essays with long comments, and suggest they rewrite their essay with another example and explain why. But I do not assign a grade.

Yet the examiners of our local schools must give a grade. In this year's secondary school exam, both the June 4 incident and the filibuster campaigns were key topics. I am ecstatic that students will get to discover about the world through politics, for there are few more interesting ways to learn. But I am also concerned. When politics is tied to grades, we have to be extremely careful. We must ensure students are not graded unfairly simply because of different, or minority, views.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.