“Ick” or ethics? This recurring question seems to be at the core of a controversy at Central Valley High School in Spokane, Washington. Ninth graders in a language arts class were instructed to compile the components of the “perfect murder.”
The assignment read, in part:
“Turn the following into real sentences and put them in a paragraph briefly explaining, ‘the perfect murder.’ Items should appear in your paragraph according to the order of importance. There are 10 ideas here, so if you remove one you have to add an idea of your own.
- It should be easy to arrange.
- It should leave no clues.
- There should be no noise.
- It should look like suicide.
- It should take place in a lonely, isolated place.
- It should not be cheap.
- No violence should be necessary.
- It should look like an accident.
- It should be quick.
- The murderer should have a good alibi.”
The project was preparation for studying the Roald Dahl short story, “Lamb to the Slaughter,” about a wife who ingeniously murders her husband. Predictably—why didn’t the teacher predict it, then?—parents went bonkers upon learning of the plan.
After many complaints, a Central Valley spokesperson released the following statement:
“On Friday, September 24, Central Valley High School administrative staff was made aware of an English activity given to a small group of students within a class, which caused concern for parents. The activity was not appropriate, was not approved nor was it sanctioned by CVHS or Central Valley School District, and is not part of our approved curriculum. It was addressed and the assignment was changed as soon as it was brought to the attention of the administration and an apology was sent to the entire class last Friday.”
Some stipulations are in order:
- Parents should have been alerted to the assignment in advance. Not doing so is a massive failure of “ethics chess.”
- The assignment was not very well constructed. Those “ten ideas” are a dog’s breakfast that do not necessarily advance the objective of a “perfect murder” at all. Why “quick”? Why should it not be cheap?
- Handing out such an assignment to children must include the obligation to provide ethical context. Was the teacher in this instance capable of doing that, or trained to do it competently? How many high school teachers would be?
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…
Was giving 9th graders such an assignment irresponsible?
I confess; I would have loved getting an assignment to concoct the “perfect murder” as a 9th grader, and I had a sixth grade teacher whom I suspect would have given out such an assignment if she had thought of it. In the abstract, I see how it could be a rich and rewarding project. Planning a perfect murder is an excellent critical thinking exercise, and murder plots are a staple of literature and popular culture.
The story was the inspiration for a memorable episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” the murderous wife bludgeons her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb (“lamb to the slaughter,” get it?) and then serves the cooked and delicious murder weapon to the gullible detective investigating the crime.