An Icelandic textbook for primary school children includes an exercise prompting kids to make their own slaves, and not all parents are pleased.
In a Facebook post made last Saturday, Icelander Fanný Cloé posted several photos from the textbook Frá Róm til Þingvalla (From Rome To Þingvellir). Published in 2010, it is intended for Icelandic primary school kids in grades 5 to 7, focusing on the period of history between the Roman Empire and the Christianisation of Iceland. As it is featured on the website of the Directorate of Education, it is officially recognised and made available to all primary schools. However, the textbook also contains a work exercise asking students to “make their own slave”.
This exercise asks children to imagine several details of their hypothetical slave: where he is from, whether he has family, and what kind of work he does. It also asks children to describe how they treat their slave, and what their slave’s hopes and dreams are. The textbook asks kids to draw a picture of their slave, and includes the caveat, “In reality, we don’t know why Icelanders decided it wasn’t worth it to have slaves anymore.”
“The problem is not so much about the school itself (though the teacher could have chosen to skip that exercise) but more about how [the textbook authority] can deem something like that appropriate for children aged 10-13,” Fanný told us. “I haven’t heard anything from the school yet. Hopefully I’ll hear something today.”
Fanný says she was stunned that children were given this task. Rather than let her child finish it, she instead wrote a note on the page stating, “This does not belong in a text book for children. I find it incredible that children should be asked to make up their own slave. I have forbidden Korydwen to take part in this and will do my best to have this removed of the text book. Regards, angry mum, Fanný.”
Fanný emphasises that she does not think slavery should not be taught in schools, but that children are being asked to put themselves in the position of slave owners. “The reason I find this inappropriate is because the exercise is asking children to put themselves in the shoes of the slave owners, which if handled wrongly by the teacher can be disastrous,” she told us. “I see this exercise as either cruel or useless. If we let modern children feel free to fill this in as they wish, they will of course not say that they’re bad to their slaves, they’ll want them to be happy and have freedom (that’s at least what my daughter wanted to do). This means that it does not let the child feel how wrong it is to own another person, so it’s a useless exercise.
“If however we want them to feel the horror of it, then we have to force them to treat the slaves as they would have been treated back in the day. And such an exercise is definitely not healthy for the mind of children, it’s plain cruel.”
Fanný points out that slavery has not vanished from the world. The Global Slavery Index puts Iceland in 49th place out of a possible 167 countries, with regional analysis outlining how in Europe, many of those working in slavery are involved in “forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation”.
“The rest of the exercises and the text book are not problematic at all, but this exercise should definitely be taken out,” she says in closing.
Sabine Leskopf, a member of the capital’s Board for Youth and Education, said that she will ask to look into this matter and see what can be done. The city’s power is limited, however, as the textbook authority is directly overseen by the Ministry of Education.