The Nazis are stealing your children!
Nazis are bad. I learned that lesson in high school like everyone else, though, let’s be honest, we all knew that Nazis were bad before we ever made it to high school. Nevertheless, that is the lesson I was taught. Nothing more; nothing less. At Albany High School in New York, one teacher tried to take this lesson a little further in three sophomore English classes:
As part of the 10th grade English persuasive writing assignment, the Albany High students were asked to pretend their teacher is a Nazi government official who must be convinced they believe Jews are the source of Germany’s problems: “You must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
The teacher is on leave, facing possible termination, because school officials and government leaders were appalled. Said Superintendent Vanden Wyngaard, “You asked a child to support the notion that the Holocaust was justified, that’s my struggle. It’s an illogical leap for a student to make.” Said New York City Councilmen David Greenfield, “The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs.” Said Director of the Jewish Federation Shelly Shapiro “It’s not how you teach about how prejudice has led to genocide.”
Well it certainly was not how I was taught that prejudice led to genocide. I learned, “Prejudice leads to genocide. It happened with the Nazis. So don’t be prejudiced like the Nazis.” And that was it. Something tells me that Shapiro is short-selling the pedagogical value of what is happening here. These students, in addition to learning a valuable lesson in English (because no creative writer has only had to write the perspective of laudable characters with whom everyone agrees), would take away from this assignment a powerful and deep understanding of not merely the tired truism that “prejudice has led to genocide” but an experience of precisely how it led to genocide. It teaches the student, in the most basic way, what it was to be a civilian in Nazi Germany, under a government that flooded the intellectual marketplace with antisemitic propaganda and expected you to learn a new cultural script to mirror it. The applications extend far beyond merely a better grasp of the history of 1930s Germany to a life lesson in the way propaganda continues to be employed and continues to shape the thinking of citizens around the world. Some clever honors student might even have concluded that the consumption of media in contemporary America might be shaping his or her thought in similar ways.
Renowned scholar of religion and American culture Stephen Prothero draws much the same conclusion:
I think it’s Greenfield who is lacking in common sense here. And it’s the superintendent who is being illogical.
I suppose it is possible that the teacher is a closet Nazi attempting to reconstruct the Third Reich in Albany. But isn’t it more likely that he or she is trying to teach students about the dangers of propaganda and the horrors of the Holocaust?
Consider the student who felt “horrible” about doing this assignment. Is that really a bad thing? How are high school students today supposed to feel about Nazism and the Holocaust?
Apparently, what they are supposed to feel (and think) is nothing, because the lesson high school teachers are going to take away from this fiasco is to avoid this topic at all costs, lest they risk losing their jobs.
Prothero points to a further dimension of “this fiasco,” the special place of the Holocaust in the American imagination. Historian John Fea has pointed out that if the principles espoused here to teaching the Holocaust were universally applied, teachers could no longer teach the thinking of Puritans who killed witches, settlers who killed Native Americans, southerners who kept slaves, nativist who oppressed Catholic immigrants, etc. What a moralistic history we are left with! And an incomplete history at that, a half history. Of course, no one would ever suggest hamstringing historians on those topics because they are not blessed by the kind of special pleading that surrounds the Holocaust. There is no villain like Hitler, no enormity like the Holocaust, and no racism like antisemitism. That, in the end, is the kind of lesson we were taught by the two-dimensional treatment of Nazism in school. No depth, no perspective, because the history of Nazism is alone a truly simple matter in history. It is a lesson against thinking for most students, and it is a tragedy that this teacher should suffer for bringing thought–in the form of an entertaining thought experiment the like of which I never enjoyed in high school or college–back into the subject of Nazism.
I hope the teacher is reinstated, because termination over something so ridiculous is unthinkable. I also hope the teacher is fired, because to take any punishment, even a slap on the wrist, and then return willingly to that environment of educational repression strikes me as a tacit admission that the teacher actually did something wrong. Of course, the teacher is probably sitting at home now worrying about paying bills, working long enough to retire some day, and coping with social ostracism. So what I really hope is that whatever the teacher wants happens. It’s a shame that it had to go this far.