A New York teacher who gave her students a writing assignment to research Nazi propaganda and then write a letter trying to convince an official of the Third Reich “that Jews are evil and the source of our problems” has been placed on leave.

From the Associated Press:

A high school English teacher who had students pretend to be Jew-hating Nazis in a writing assignment has been placed on leave.

The teacher at Albany High School caused a storm of criticism after having students practice the art of persuasive writing by penning a letter to a fictitious Nazi government official arguing that “Jews are evil.”

District Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard held a news conference Friday to apologize for the assignment.

The Times Union newspaper reported ( http://bit.ly/ZTc4PU ) on Saturday that the teacher was not in class on Friday and had been placed on leave by the school district.

The writing assignment was done before a planned class reading of the memoir “Night,” by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

For the assignment, the teacher asked students to research Nazi propaganda, then write a letter trying to convince an official of the Third Reich “that Jews are evil and the source of our problems.”

“Review in your notebooks the definitions for logos, ethos, and pathos,” the teacher’s assignment said. “Choose which argument style will be most effective in making your point. Please remember, your life (here in Nazi Germany in the 30′s) may depend on it!”

Wyngaard said she didn’t think the assignment was malicious but “it displayed a level of insensitivity that we absolutely will not tolerate.”

One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading, writing, and thinking about history for me is how the subject matter has the ability to transport me back in time and set me down as a stranger in a strange land.  Reading about the Revolutionary War? Square your conservative beliefs with being on the side of the rebels. Where would you have stood as a southerner during the Civil War? How about as a northerner? Superficially, there are easy answers. But in order to truly understand the subject, you must know yourself. Writing does that. It makes one “an exact man,” as Francis Bacon noted.

It appears to me that the unnamed teacher approached this assignment in the correct manner. She told students to research Nazi propaganda and argue that propaganda from a particular point of view using accepted styles of argument. The exercise expanded their minds, made them think, took them out of their comfort zone, and forced them to think like an entirely different person.

What kind of person would you have been in Nazi Germany circa 1936? Think about it. A particularly virulent and nauseating form of  anti-Semitism gripped the entire continent of Europe in the period between the wars. It was normal. It was natural to harbor evil thoughts about the Jews. Everyone you knew hated the Jews. Your parents hated the Jews. Your friends and neighbors hated the Jews.

Forget about the “good Germans” who opposed Hitler. There were damn few of them and they were weak-willed and weak-minded. For the most part, the good German people approved of and applauded Hitler’s oppression.

Is it a valuable lesson to force students into that world, that mindset, and have them act out what they would have been thinking by having them write about it? I think it is an extremely valuable exercise. It won’t change anyone’s mind about the Nazis or the Jews. But it will help the students know themselves better. What could possibly be wrong with that?
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