What The Sneetches teaches

Last Saturday I was doing some house cleaning while listening to a podcast, the most recent episode of NPR’s “Planet Money.”  I was intrigued with the title: “The economics lessons in kids’ books.”  I was even more intrigued when the episode centered on an elementary classroom “in the Columbus, Ohio suburbs,” which turned out to be Shale Meadows Elementary School in Olentangy Local School District.  No personal connections I know of (although probably some I don’t know of), but cool that a national podcast had a local focus. 

It was a fun episode featuring a skilled teacher interacting with her engaged students around economic issues presented in books like Frog and Toad and Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, spliced with commentary from Planet Money’s Erica Beras about economic theory.  An agreement between the district and NPR that the selected readings would be non-political seemed to be a nonissue until the teacher started reading the final book, Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches

If you’ve never read The Sneetches, I’m sorry for your lost childhood. Or if you have but forget, the book is about the social hierarchy between the plain-belly Sneetches and star-belly Sneetches and the entrepreneur Sylvester McMonkey McBean who knows how to cash in on trends of his own making.

Soon into the reading, the students made the connection between Sneetches and race relations in the US.  Smart kids.  But this prompted the communications rep from the school to shut down the conversation which had apparently strayed too far from economics.  All of this is captured within the podcast.  The Dispatch caught wind of the episode and published an online article Sunday afternoon with some follow up responses from the school. 

The story raises questions of banned books and how we discuss race with children.  It highlights the landmines those in school leadership are trying to navigate these days.  It also teaches a larger lesson, intuitive for those kids – our economic lives are inseparable from the politics of race. 

Economics is a combination of two Greek words, “house/rules,” or “household management.”  An honest look at US history indicates the painful racialized rules and management of our common house.  Our annual national observation of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday this coming weekend is a chance to hear again how he, like a Hebrew prophet, wove together themes of economics, justice, and peacefulness that still echo today.