A New York Times article that appeared April 12, 2013 reported that a high school teacher in Albany, New York recently gave an assignment to students asking them, presumably as a lesson on the Holocaust, to write a persuasive essay arguing from the Nazi point of view that Jews were the source of their problems. The assignment included the following instructions: “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
First of all, this is definitely a gutsy assignment. We have been taught that the Nazis were the essence of evil. And yet, to teach history effectively, it certainly seems reasonable that all points of view be represented. I actually did a demonstration lesson back in the early 1990’s (in a high school in New York state as it turns out), whose instructional objective was to help students understand the factors that led to the rise of fascism between the two world wars. My methodology was Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. I used sound effects (the guns of World War I), role play (I had students carting imaginary wheelbarrows of German marks to illustrate the inflation in Germany in the 1920’s), and then at the climactic moment I slapped on a Hitler moustache and role played the dictator saying that ”I’d lead the German people to better times” with Wagner playing in the background.
So I can understand using unconventional methods to make an impression on students who might otherwise simply get only lah-dee-dah book knowledge about the Nazis. I think if we want to make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes ever again, we need to deeply understand what it was that drove the German people to make the decisions that they did in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. And to some extent, that means getting inside their heads and trying to experience life as they experienced it.
Having said that, however, I feel it was unbelievably cruel of that high school teacher to ask students to write an essay with the student as a putative Nazi arguing that Jews are evil. I’m reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer right now. I began it fifty years ago this year, as an eighth grader. I never got too far. Actually, most of my reading was in the final chapter, ”The New Order”, about the Holocaust itself, and I believe I was traumatized by the experience, so much so that only now am I able to come back to the book at age 62 and read it from beginning to end. I’m right at the point where Hitler is about to invade Poland, and I have to say that what I have read up to this point sickens me. In a Germany that had seen the the Enlightenment and thinkers like Kant (remember the moral imperative?) and Goethe, this group of gangsters and thugs, and the moral monster Hitler somehow got control of the nation (democratically – which is really embarassing!), and promoted an ugly, rancid, vulgar, crude, virulent brand of evil that poisoned the well of humanity, I think, for all time.
To ask that high school students get inside of this garbage pit and commune with these putrid minds of hatred is unutterably cruel and can only drag the minds of these impressionable adolescents down into the gutter. We need to inspire these minds to aspire to higher values and not dirty themselves by having them identify with vermin (we might keep in mind that a teacher, Leopold Poetsch, played a formative role in filling Hitler’s mind with ideas of German supremacy and Jewish inferiority). A much better approach, that would still serve the purpose of having them look at both sides of this history, would be to have them think about people that they feel hate toward, or think of as ”less than” or that in some way they believe to be inferior to themselves (perhaps the people that they would be most likely to ”bully” at school). This would be taking their own current experience (which should, after all, be the starting point of any lesson in school on any subject), and helping them see that, “yes, I too can hate others, feel that others are inferior, put others in a box; I too am capable of becoming THAT.”
In fact, there were some educational experiments done in the 1960’s and 1970’s, including Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, and Ron Jones’ The Third Wave, at a Palo Alto, California high school, that attempted to do something of this sort as large group simulations (both projects had to be terminated early because they took on a life of their own, thus demonstrating their frightening point). Stanley Milgram’s controversial experiments on obedience to authority at Yale University also come to mind here. Each of these projects attempted (successfully I believe) to demonstrate that anyone can be turned into a potential Nazi given the right psychological triggers.
Finally, the assignment that this Albany, New York teacher gave to the students reveals a certain kind of stupidity. It reveals the mind of someone who appears to regard knowledge as morally neutral; as something you can just package in educational modules and deliver in an intellectually hygenic way to students. There are no distinctions in this sort of mind-set: the assignment could be ”finding the main idea” ”using active rather than passive voice in writing” or in this case ”arguing that Jews are evil.” In fact, right next to this injunction was the instructions: “Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion.” It could as well have been about widgets in Franconia.
This insensitivity to the power of knowledge, to knowledge as a living organism, is something that is endemic in our public and private schools today. It shows itself most recently in the establishment of a Common Core set of standards that most states will adopt in the coming year. These standards turn out to be bland pellets of alleged efficacy that will absorb the precious energies and time of teachers for the foreseeable future. Instead of helping students grapple with the great questions of humanity, and appreciate the vitality of life, they will now be pressured to fit these rich complexities into the Procrustean bed of utilitarian commandments like this one: ”ELA.W.11.12.3b – Use narrative techniques such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.”
It doesn’t really matter what the experiences, events, or characters referred to in the standard actually are. They could be white bread characters from a bad novel or Pierre Bezukhov and Natasha Rostova in War & Peace. No distinction is made along the Richter scale of human experience. Our high school teacher’s Nazi lesson is just another example of a kind of ”values-stupidity” which plays itself out daily in classrooms across the nation.