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.
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?
More on the next page.
Stephen Prothero, writing at CNN’s Belief blog:
When I was an assistant professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I used to teach Nazi theology. My students read sermons by Nazi theologians arguing that Jews were evil and were responsible for killing Jesus. They also read a book called “Theologians Under Hitler” by Robert P. Erickson, who tried to explain how and why Christian thinkers could come to believe that exterminating Jews was somehow Christ-like.
I am not a Nazi. I was not teaching Nazi theology as the truth. I was teaching it as propaganda, just like this Albany High School teacher was doing. My purpose was not to make my students sympathetic to Nazism. My purpose was to unsettle them. And to teach them something along the way.
I had two goals when teaching this material.
First, I wanted my students to realize that smart Christians with doctoral degrees supported the Holocaust. Second, I wanted them to grapple with the implications of this fact on their own religious commitments. Do Christians today have any responsibility to know this history and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again? If so, how can they exercise that responsibility without coming to understand the contours of Nazi thought?
But instead of grappling with these questions, my students almost universally tried to side-step them. The Nazis were not Christians, they told me confidently, because Christians would never kill Jews just for being Jews. Case closed. Time to move on to more comfortable topics.
What I witnessed in Atlanta, and what we are seeing today in Albany, is a failure of imagination. My students were so locked into their current circumstances that they couldn’t imagine things being different in a different place and time.
But students aren’t the only victims of the failure of imagination we are now witnessing among Albany school officials and Jewish leaders. The teacher is a victim, too. And so are public school teachers across the country who are being told via this fiasco not to be creative as teachers, not to challenge their students to think in new ways.
If this teacher is fired, I will invite him or her to Boston University, where I now teach, to explain what he or she was trying to accomplish in challenging students with this assignment. And I will give the same assignment to my college students. I think it will do them some good.
The most valuable part of any education is learning to think. If I were superintendent of that school district, I’d give that teacher a commendation for original thinking, not suspend her and threaten her job.