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April 13th, 2013
02:38 PM ET

My Take: Nothing wrong with Nazi assignment

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) – School officials in Albany, New York, are racing to control the damage after a teacher at Albany High School gave students a persuasive writing assignment that challenged them to defend the proposition that “Jews are evil.”

After studying Nazi propaganda and rhetoric, sophomores in three English classes were instructed to imagine that their teacher was “a member of the government in Nazi Germany” and to prove that that they were “loyal to the Nazis.”

But this unidentified teacher is now caught up in a propaganda swirl of his or her own.

Albany Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, at a Friday press conference at which she was flanked by members of the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Federation of New York, apologized and promised disciplinary action.

One student, Emily Karandy, told The Times Union of Albany that she kept putting off the assignment “because I didn’t want to think about it” and she felt “horrible” when she turned it in.

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New York City Councilman David Greenfield has called for the resignation of the teacher, who has been placed on leave.

"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," Greenfield said in a statement. "Quite obviously, this teacher lacks the judgment and common sense necessary to have a position of such great responsibility and is clearly not fit to return to the classroom."

"You asked a child to support the notion that the Holocaust was justified, that's my struggle," said Vanden Wyngaard. "It's an illogical leap for a student to make."

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.

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.

For them, to believe that Christians could condone the Holocaust was (to quote from the Albany superintendent) an “illogical leap.” But Christians did condone the Holocaust. How can students learn that without digging into the primary materials? And how better to wrestle with those primary materials than by constructing a persuasive essay built upon them?

If I were teaching at Albany High School I might have worded this assignment a little differently. But it's a terrific assignment, and one that should be used at more high schools across the country. To far too many American youth, the Holocaust is an echo of an echo. Assignments like this bring it alive in all its horrors.

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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 opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Culture wars • Education • Holocaust • Judaism • New York • Prejudice • United States

soundoff (1,829 Responses)
  1. Helen

    I agree that the teacher's assignment was an excellent way for school children to confront what people are capable of doing to each other. High school is a fine time for students to explore what leads perfectly ordinary people to commit such atrocities. I imagine their next discussion might have brought up slavery and the KKK.
    This country has to stop squelching the teaching of young minds to consider cause and effect. If it doesn't, the next generation will be so sheltered and ignorant that they'll never understand the world around them. If students found the assignment hard to execute, it is because they are not used to considering the dreadful things that human nature is capable of, under a certain kind of leadership and conditions. Without that understanding they are powerless to stop the cycle of violence. Knowledge is not evil.

    April 13, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
    • Jerry

      Helen, what is wrong with you? There was NOTHING in this assignment that made clear that the goal was to teach that propaganda, when justified, produces unimaginable evil. There was no such stated goal. On its own merit, this assignment was on its face, a reinforcement of antisemitism.

      April 13, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Jerry, I hope your children are smarter than you are.

      April 13, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • e

      teaching cause and effect can happen just fine without making children craft racist letters.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
    • tabbi

      jerry, did you read that the class had been learning about the propaganda of the nazis????

      April 15, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
  2. Josh

    FYI it was not Nazis vs the Jews, there was no war between the Jews and the Nazis, there is only one logical and ethical standpoint. Terrorism vs Non-terrorism. Genocide vs non-genocide. Grow a brain. You can't ask kids to act and think immorally and that is what she was doing. Jail time please.

    April 13, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
    • tabbi

      in school did you never have to debate a topic on the opposite side of what you believed??? its called critical thinking

      April 15, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      ehh.... remember how uncomfortable i was having to take a logging companies said on a debate.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
  3. David Schiller

    Prothero writes: "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."

    So what happened in this assignment was that the teacher gave the students an assignment in which they were supposed to _pretend_ that they were Nazi theologians.

    The assignment is simply absurd, as is Prothero's apologia for the assignment.

    April 13, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  4. Jerry

    Where is the course on why Saddam Hussein was morally correct in killing as many Serbs as possible? Or Christians all being murdered in a holy war by muslims? Give me a break! There are endless topics that could have been selected for "critical thinking" that didn't involve justifying yet again why it really was (in theory) to exterminate all Jews. How about picking a critical thinking task that doesn't involve training young students to "think like Nazis" with respect to a group of people who have, in reality, been subject to plots and actions to exterminate them for thousands of years, led most often by so-called Christians. As for the author of this blog, I believe he may well be an unapologetic antisemite. Has he assisgned any coursework that involves exterminating all Christians in the most abominable ways imaginable under the guise of
    "critical thinking?" I don't only think not, I know not. I cannot believe but the author of this blog is an ugly man.

    April 13, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • Shamus McLier

      Saddam never killed Serbs. Serbs are In Europe

      April 13, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Jerry
      I think you mean the kurds.

      We do not know the kurds, and we do not know their way.

      April 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  5. lilith

    what if the teacher has a "hidden bias". have you looked the website for Albany High School. Have you looked up the english teacher that has many links to history of Nazi's on their webpage. What is they are of some cultural heritage that holds an anit-semitic viewpoint such a the palestinians or basque?

    April 13, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • Shamus McLier

      Basque? What are you talking about!? Basques don't hate anybody except people in the way of their freedom. And Palestinians don't like Jews because they stole their land and exterminated a lot of them and continue to do so.

      April 13, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
  6. Josh

    This is like asking Families who relatives died in american wars recently or died in 9/11 to write an essay on why american's are evil and to take on the terrorists point of view. Let's think of other topics for this idiot teacher "Why blacks need to still be slaves" , "Why the western world is evil" , "Why the holocaust never really happened." Any other topics please reply, although i'm sure this teacher seems like a big enough idiot to think of more clever ones on her own.

    April 13, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
  7. Harry R.

    I completely agree with this article. I thought schools were suppose to give out unbiased material... But they don't. They only show the Jew's side of the story, but not the Nazi's. The slavery part, but not the pro-slavery... The only fault here was that the teacher did not show the jew's side of the story, but again, since when does anyone learn about the nazi's side?

    April 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • Chewiedog

      There is no Nazi side. That is the problem with the assignment. No way should anyone ever tolerate the intolerant. Grow a brain.

      April 13, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • Jerry

      The Nazi side? Gee, I wonder who is a rabid antisemite? About the Muslim side about why all Christians should be exterminated if they don't covert to Islam?

      You, Sir, are obviously a hate filled person.

      April 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • Harry R.

      The two comments above just showed what the majority of people would have thought. "There is no Nazi side." THERE IS! If there wasn't, why do we blame the Nazi's for what happened? (At least that is what they say in school, but I am reluctant to think it was entirely them, perhaps things would've been different if it wasn't for Hitler). There is always two sides to a story, and I think schools should show both sides. I think teens in high school should learn what would cause these people to actually do all these awful things, so they can learn not to fall for the same trick. They should learn what the mindset was of the Nazis. Were they fearful of what would happen if they defied their role? Were they actually loyal? What caused the people to believe the propaganda? If we stay ignorant of what the Nazi's were thinking, and just focus on what they did, how can we be sure we won't fall into a mindset like the Nazi's? And please, keep this conversation professional, do not make blind assumptions over a couple lines of words. Thanks!

      April 13, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      chewie dod "There is no Nazi side. That is the problem with the assignment. No way should anyone ever tolerate the intolerant. Grow a brain."

      Do you even READ what you write?

      April 14, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • e

      You want teachers to imply that sic million innocent people deserved to be MURDERED based solely on their religion? Are you stupid? oh wait why would I ask that when you obviously ARE.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
  8. American

    It's all about cultural Marxist totalitarianism anymore. No one is permitted to learn how to think for themselves anymore in the modern liberal public indoctrination system and if they try to they will be dealt with severely... someday just like under the Nazis if this PC tyranny keeps growing.

    April 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Marxist totalitarianism? I'm willing to bet you have no idea what either of those words means.

      April 13, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
  9. John

    As a disabled veteran I applaud the students who didnt do the assignment. It sickens me to think that during a time when the second amendment is under scrutiny that we would have an adult tell students to think like the animals the Nazi's were. I am repulsed and feel ill. I agree with all above that stated this should be held in a college curriculum where a childs mind is more matured and less influenced by debate and has a grip on the realities of society. Sorry for any bad English , I have a tbi incurred in cold war Germany.

    April 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Sure, let's don't allow debate teams in high school. Their little brains can't handle both sides of an issue.

      April 14, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  10. myrtle may

    I have to disagree with the author. If this were a political science course or comparative religion course or something similar, I could understand the position. But it's an English course, and persuasive writing assignments can be made in any of a million less horrifically controversial areas. The Holocaust & Nazi propaganda certainly need to be studied in HS & college, but in the proper framework. Not as an "off the cuff" assignment. The teacher made a serious error in judgment, but unless they have a bad history, I don't think they need lose their jobs over it.

    April 13, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
  11. criticalthinker

    I don't think there is anything wrong with challenging students to take an evil role. For most of them (hopefully, all of them), it should be a positive that sticks with them for life. It would have been perfect if they could have ended the study with a trip to a Holocaust museum.

    April 13, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
  12. Skwisgaar Skwigelf

    Thems..those dildos should have making papers about MILF's vs. GMILF's insteads.

    April 13, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • Geesh

      I heard that is a course at Pepperdine!

      April 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
    • Skwisgaar Skwigelf

      Pepperdines is for dildos. In Sweden we haves superiority edge uc....educations. I ams going to be sicks now.

      April 13, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  13. cliffndort

    An assignment, such as this one, is asking the students to take a particular position and defend it. In this case is was Nazi versus Jews. It could have easily been slavery versus anti-slavery, or abortion versus ant-abortion, gay marriage-versus anti gay marriage. I don't think that this teachers subject of discussion was the point. I believe her point was to make her students do some critical thinking, having to look at both sides of an issue, but also having do defend one side of the issue. It's called debate. You may not agree with whatever side of the issue, but you must give thought to and be able to debate it.

    To repeat, this teacher was trying to teach her students critical thinking skills and chose a very difficult issue for them to support. Isn't this much better than feeding our students a bunch of pap, not encouraging them to think for themselves rather than just absorb what they are being told?

    I applaud this teacher.

    April 13, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I agree it is something that should be taught, and I have taught similar assignments in varied fields to students from age 11 through graduate school. However, when you assign this kind of thing, especially in the public school system, there are right and wrong ways to go about it. The right way is to show clearly that you aren't pushing an agenda, either by having students write both sides of the assignment, or (less ideally) by randomly assigning students to one side or the other. This teacher may well have had great intentions but the assignment, as designed, was not appropriate to the age group or the involuntary nature of high school education.

      There are also some very real issues involved in having done this kind of assignment. Everything is recorded these days and if a teacher maintains a copy of such an assignment, or a classmate you emailed it to for review keeps a copy, the context may be very difficult to explain. All someone has to do is post a copy of your essay on Why Jews Are Evil online and your future job prospects could be shot for a long, long time.

      April 13, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • kevin

      And, so if we can teach using the good in the world rather than the evil in the world, why not make that choice. Is there not enough exposure for young people to the evils in the world? I suppose the issue of crticial thinking is the argument I am hearing as applauding this teacher, but if teaching means we provide both instruction on how to be good citizens, how to someday be functioning human beings, and how to be a force for good in the world, this assignment fails miserably. Defending the hatred of one race or another, with all due respect, is much different than writing a paper on the good or bad that came from religious activism for instance because their is no good that comes from hatred, but the proper use of religion has given hope to millions while the abuse of the same has ripped life and hope from many. If you are a teacher, I think you need to use the critical thinking you so much aspouse to and reconsider your position.

      April 13, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • Diamondude

      Your an A S S Hole....applaud away you antisemitic idiot

      April 13, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • j. bramer

      seems critical thinking, imagination, debate forums and explorative conceptualization.... ohhh never mind.

      April 13, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
    • Josh

      FYI it was not Nazis vs the Jews, there was no war between the Jews and the Nazis, there is only one logical and ethical standpoint. Terrorism vs Non-terrorism. Genocide vs non-genocide. Grow a brain. You can't ask kids to act immorally and that is what she was doing.

      April 13, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  14. Arnold D

    Let me pose a question

    If the teacher was white and gave the students an assignment where they were members of the KKK and had to justify hanging blacks from trees what do you think the reaction would have been? How long would it have taken Rev Al to organize a march on Albany and for the Governor to fire the teacher, the principal and the Superintendent?

    Uh huh. That's what I thought.

    April 13, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
  15. Livilla

    Yes, Stephen there is a great deal wrong with at assignment. First of all, this is a 10th grade High School class, not a college seminar. Secondly, there are many other more suitable subjects for the same lesson. This "teacher" is attempting to interject vile anti-Semitism into the curriculum through the back door and should be terminated and blackballed from acredited places of learning. If he or she insists on teaching, there is always a mall college like Grand Canyon or National that doesn't care about racism or academic standards.

    April 13, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  16. Bootyfunk

    sorry, but the teacher is an idiot. this would be like an assignment saying "why blacks should still be slaves." for any jewish kid in the class, it must have been especially horrible. what was this moron thinking? i understand studying WWII and the Nazi propaganda and so on - but this assignment is way over the top. i don't think the teacher is a closet Nazi - but he/she does show poor taste in assignments. there's a better way to do an assignment on Nazi propaganda than to assign a paper on why Jews are evil.

    April 13, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
  17. Thomas Ades

    If I assign my students in high school to read an anthology of the pro-slavery writings of the US circa 1850 and then ask my students to write a persuasive essay for the enslavement of black Africans, can I expect an invitation to Boston College as well.
    Intelectual inquiry does require judgement as well as knowledge, and high school students are not graduate theology students.

    April 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  18. Saraswati

    If this was really assigned as described it was a poorly designed assignment. To avoid controversy while pracicing critical writing it is easy enough to assign students to write papers on both sides of a controversial topic. This also teaches students to predict possible criticsms and account for them within one's argument.

    The idea is good and forces students to take on a real understanding of the issues, but high school is not college and ignoring very real political issues in this kind of assignment is a bad idea. I believe this was well meant, but in trying to teach about social issues in Nazi Germany this teachers showed a lack of understanding of his own culture.

    April 13, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    April 13, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Inis Magrath

      Prayer might or might not change things, but such a comment is 100% irrelevant to the topic of this article.

      April 13, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      actions cause change; prayer wastes valuable time.

      study after study shows this. talking to your invisible friend = doing nothing.

      April 13, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Useless, brainless spambot.

      April 13, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • HeavenSense

      Hi Prayerbot.

      April 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • .

      Prayer is always relevant.

      April 14, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      April 15, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • Really?

      "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things"

      That's why the data, has shown that atheists have happier and healthier lives than conservative Christians. Your post is built on a lie!

      April 15, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  20. SAAB

    only in America.

    April 13, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
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