Lifeboat ethics for sixth-graders, and media don’t bother with religious insights

You have your traditional leaky boat and 15 people aboard. Whom do you throw out first? Second? Third?

People get upset over stuff like that, you know: grading one human's worth over that of another. Especially when it's forced onto preteen children.

Yes, forced. Students in a middle school near Tampa were required to decide whether a variety of people -- from a Hispanic woman to a "black guy" to a pregnant woman to Justin Bieber -- were worth saving. Yet no one reporting it sought feedback from ministers, ethicists or anyone else who deals with such matters all the time. 

At least one parent was mad enough to raise hell to a local NBC affiliate, yielding a story that echoed in several states and even overseas.

Our saga starts at Giunta Middle School, where a history teacher set out the wrenching "activity." As WFLA tells it:

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Valerie Kennel is mad and she wants answers. She was furious when her sixth-grade daughter from Giunta Middle School in Riverview came home with something called "The Lifeboat Test," where students were forced to make a choice.
Who would they save on a sinking ship? Who lives and who dies? There are 15 choices listed on the test, but only nine people can be picked to survive. Their descriptions include race, gender and religion. Kennel tells News Channel 8, "It’s racist in every form."
"This had nothing to do with history, nothing to do with it, and what is it teaching them?" she added.

The very choices sound absurd, according to the list published in the London Daily Mail. Besides the above-mentioned, they include Donald Trump and Barack Obama, male and female doctors, black and white men, an ex-convict and a police officer, someone named "Mr. Bobo," and even the class teacher, Mr. Hagerman (no first name given).

Oh yeah, they also got religion into the exercise. Among the candidates for sink-or-swim were a rabbi and a minister.  Maybe that's appropriate: The whole moral/religious aspect of the lifeboat drill was submerged, not only by the school but by the media.  More on that shortly.

One could argue that lifeboat ethics is a very current issue, when layoffs and buyouts are increasingly common -- especially in the foundering media business itself. But in business layoffs, the decisions are made by adults, not people like Leah Davis, Valerie Kennel's 11-year-old daughter.

"She's 11!" Kennel fumes to WFLA. "How's she supposed to pick people based off of what they're saying? To her, everybody matters. Everybody should have a chance. "

Leah vents her own outrage:

According to Leah, other students in her history class were uncomfortable. One was so upset, the pre-teen claims, that her classmate refused the assignment, ripped up the paper and was then reprimanded by the teacher, Mr. Hagerman.  Leah went on to say that the student was sent next door in a "time-out."
"Whenever I got it at school, I was like, I don’t want to do this, and I got kind of upset about it," Leah said. "Everybody in the classroom got upset about it and said, ‘This is racist. This is racist.’ "

To its credit, WFLA followed up the next day. Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, of the county classroom teachers' association, says the test was meant as a "team-building exercise."

"The purpose of the exercise is to make people think about very hard topics to grapple with. So I understand it makes people feel uncomfortable but that is one of the educational points of doing it.  In a world where we want our kids to gain key critical thinking skills, this is one of the ways in which we do that," said Baxter-Jenkins.
"The key piece is to ask kids what things are we valuing, why are we valuing them, it’s not always a comfortable issue," added Baxter-Jenkins.

The Hillsborough County School Board apparently kept WFLA away from the teacher. A spokesperson says he "felt that all of the students understood the exercise, they enjoyed the exercise according to him and they all had a really great conversation as they were doing this." So there's clearly a difference of perception. Asking more students, like the one who allegedly was timed out, would have helped clear that up.

But I give another point for WFLA for talking to a child psychologist. "I can’t believe that the district or the school decided to make this kind of activity for 11-year-olds and 12-year-olds," Nekeshia Hammond says. "It’s awful that you would ask an 11-year-old who would die on a boat based on their ethnicity, their race or their gender and religion. I think this activity definitely should be removed."

It's also a canny decision to ask a black female psychologist, since the lifeboat exercise was partly about race and gender. But the station apparently asked no follow-up questions, like why an 11-year-old is ill-equipped for such decisions.

As of this writing, it looks like this story has been treated mainly as one for TV. It quickly spread to stations in Charleston, Columbus, Albany, Colorado Springs, Medford, Ore., and two South Carolina markets -- Spartanburg and Mount Pleasant. But except for the Daily Mail, I haven't seen it in newspapers, not even around Florida.

Even the stations that carried the report didn’t build on it. They could have sought feedback from local pastors and rabbis, priests and imams. They could have asked social ethicists, moral theologians or, like WFLA, child psychologists.

The lifeboat scenario has been hashed out for decades. The best-known version was taught by the late Garrett Hardin of the University of California -- who used it as an argument against helping the poor. (I wonder if that was going to come up in middle school?)

But Hardin's thought experiment is about how many people to allow onto the lifeboat. The middle school assignment is much closer to the version by lawyer Andy Schlafly, founder of Conservapedia.  He proposed: "You are the captain of a lifeboat that can only hold 15 people, but there are currently 20 in it. The boat will sink unless several people leave. How do you decide whom to throw off?"

Schlafly then offers several reasons he thinks the lifeboat ethic is wrong. His reasons, in turn, are rebutted in the rival Rational Wiki.

Now, you can't always get that kind of breadth on deadline, but you can include it in a follow-up if the issue develops further. But I'll bet Michelle Bearden, the Tampa Trib's award-winning religion writer, would have worked this story fully. Why didn’t she? Because she was laid off last year.

Come to think of it, that's a weakness of lifeboat ethics, no? You can toss someone out today, but what if you'll need them tomorrow?

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