Using History to Teach

From a recent news article:

“A high school English teacher could face disciplinary action for giving a writing assignment that asked students to make a persuasive argument blaming Jews for the problems of Nazi Germany, Albany school district officials said Friday.”

The assignment, first reported Friday by the Albany Times Union, asked students to research Nazi propaganda, then assume their teacher was a Nazi government official who had to be convinced of their loyalty. The assignment told students they “must argue that Jews are evil.”

My first reaction was, this could have been a poignant exercise on rhetoric, logic and history, but didn’t take into account the current existence and legacy of antisemitism.  Though, whether that is a valid reaction might depend on what one thinks of things like The Third Wave experiment.  The more I read over the article though, the more I’m baffled about what the teacher in NY was even trying to accomplish. (Were they just trying to be edgy?)

7 thoughts on “Using History to Teach

  1. Perhaps they didn’t know themselves? From my experience, sometimes this just shows a teacher that themselves needs to learn more about the Holocaust and the history of anti-Semitism. It definitely shows a want to get students to try role-playing, but lacks the sensitivity to really understand that this topic was not the appropriate one.

  2. So if there was no Shoa it would be okay? I don’t get the point. Either it is a problem all together, no matter what came of the Nazi Regime, or it is okay all together. Would it be okay if the Nazis had “only” killed German Socialists? Is it okay to give such assignments on the Franco Regime, because he stuck to killing only Spaniards? Where would one draw the line?

  3. This is interesting in several ways to me. As a teacher in Philosophy I feel that it is extremely important that we teach about Fascism (prior to college age). I interpret this film and school experience as an attempt at teaching Fascism and oppression generally. My question is, does it effectively teach about these human evils. The dramatic effects alone probably preclude learning experience. We should not assume that drama or shock or emotional experience produces the learning that we desire. While this is the first exposure I have had to this situation, it is not the first such attempt in American education. The focus on blantant and obvious oppression may not be as helpful as the originators hoped for. Also, the (assumed) cleverness of not only blurring the boundaries of realities, but apparently intentionally concealing them (as a learning device) is seriously problematic, in my opinion.

    The possibilities for learning critical thinking and feeling from an assignment that requires a student a produce an argument and an opposing argument to it retains a clear sense of boundary, in my opinion. But this was not the case in this exercise. We can appreciate the potential value of experiential learning, but such exercises are very complex, and thus easy to become counter-productive, I fear. Further, I feel that the teaching of Fascism as a way of belief and practice should not focus on the obvious and evil practices of Nazis (Germany), but must focus on the subtleties of social practice and reasoning (uncritical that it must be) that led to these atrocities. Such evils lurk in US culture. It is most important that we understand first that Fascism is the marriage of a radical sense of nationalism and a specific mode of religiousness. From that wedding all evils can emerge. I suggest that it would be more productive to encourage young students to recognize the evil concealed well in non-critical living. All this is missed or dismissed by throwing young students into the experiential learning situation at hand, in my opinion. Fascism, like all “religious” experience, is not founded in concentration camps, but in the human heart, from which concentration camps emerge (and they do so as morally and spiritual “justified”). Many youngsters today are fascist in their thinking and feeling. They are unaware of this. We must help them track those thoughts, feelings. social-moral-religious principles, so that they are able to see that they are not morally and socially sustainable, that they are in fact, suicidal. Thanks, Nick

  4. — assuming that the intend *was* to teach about the *evil* of oppression and not *how to oppress*

  5. It seems to me the charitable view is that the teacher wanted students to see how easy it can be to be complicit to oppression. It still seems to be a bad idea, but In any case there seems to be no evidence that the point of the assignment was to malign Jewish people or to encourage Nazism. I wish we had access to the planned debrief of the assignment (or set up for that matter). This could have been a lesson about how people stood by and let the holocaust happen. It’s still not a good idea, but that seems to me a much less problematic assignment than the one everyone seems to be assuming.

    You can see the actual assignment here:

    I think it would be interesting to see how the blue eye/brown eye experiment would be interpreted today. I have a feeling it would get a teacher fired.

  6. It’d be interesting to see what the reaction would be if the teacher gave an assignment called “convince me the spending and actions of the US military have kept us safe” or “convince me the treatment of nonhuman animals is sustainable and justifiable”. Would the same 1/3 not complete the assignment? Would there be the threat of discipline, firings, etc.?

    I was pleased to see most of the comments in the original thread defending the teacher. Her/his plan was badly executed but I am mostly in agreement with Kimberly’s charitable view (if she/he were, in fact, sympathetic to Nazi’s then fuck ’em). Assuming the teacher was diabolical or offering retrospective certainty of consequences/certainty of better strategies/etc. is something we could only find in the internet age. I’m fortunate my own failings and personal mistakes have yet to be held up to that iron…but I’m sure that time is coming.

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