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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. Challenger

    I would have instead written a persuasive essay about how high school teachers are overcompensated for a job poorly done and recommend to the school board that salaries get slashed. Just hypothetically of course.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Dan

      Right, thats the problem in our schools, to many teachers making way too much money who don't even have to work for it...oh, wait, hold on a sec, that's the report from BIZZARO WORLD!! The exact opposite of what the actual problem is...

      April 15, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  2. Hello

    We were taught respect by being caned. I am now a teacher and i would very much like to teach Stephen respect.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Vera

      The whole world is in trouble if you are a teacher.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Hello

      You need to get out of your comfort zone Vera and experience a caning. You cannot be caning other and fully understand the situation.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Vera

      I am also basing my opinion on your previous idiotic posts.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Hello

      You want how many lashes?

      April 15, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • Red Dwarf

      "i would very much like to teach Stephen respect."

      Well I am saddened that you are excited over the idea of beating someone and causing them much pain. It's the sick violent people like yourself that we have to be wary of.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  3. Eric Alexander

    I am very alarmed by the rising tide of nazism and nazi sympathizers in this country right now. If you want children to understand the horrors of the holocaust let them read first hand accounts of the horrors that were experienced in the camps like I did when I was in school. Asking people to understand a nazi position, to sympathize with it, and to argue in favor of it even as an intellectual activity is dangerous. I am very alarmed, and you should be too. We are a pen stroke away from the drones assassinated American civilians without trial, and we have teachers in school asking students to understand why the Nazis committed the worst atrocities in western history. We even have editorial pieces on mainstream news defending Nazi sympathizers.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • paulronco

      Well said, hear hear.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
    • lol??

      Take the Obama Oath today while you still have time.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Eric
      That thinking is exactly why america is so far behind the rest of the world in education. You are afraid of nazi sympathizers...so were the german people, so they stayed quiet, until the nazi sympathizers were the loudest voice. Next, the people were afraid to speak out against it as no one knows who can be trusted. People started disappearing when they spoke out, so the entire nation started going along with it. Then it became too late to do anything about it.

      So now you want us to not talk about it...that is NOT the road that we want to travel. Being afraid of a subject opens a door for ignorance to flourish, which is how this type of thing happens.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
  4. Mike Wallace

    The demonstrated inability to use valid logic in these comments section is exactly the reason why assignments like these need to exist.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  5. cgr182

    Well said, people miss the point of being able to think from another’s perspective, right or wrong. If you cannot put yourself in the place of another and imagine how they would feel of think (we call it empathize) then what kind of an intelligent thinker are you. The teacher was not saying agree to these ideas, he was saying THINK about these ideas so you can better understand them.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • paulronco

      When you tell a kid to write an effective piece of Nazi propaganda, there is absolutely no practical distinction between getting them to "think about these ideas" and training them to act on them.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Vera

      That's ludicrous, paulronco.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Mike Wallace

      Once again, Paulronco, your inability to use valid logic is exactly why critical thinking assignments like this should be given.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  6. Insanityreins

    As a teacher I try to teach my students to reason both sides, to make decisions for themselves based on facts. To dig and look and think for themselves and to never use the words, everyone or most people. It is a horribly hard pill to swallow but yes many Nazi's were praying to the same God as the Jew's. The point is If your Christian and know the truth this will not sway your beliefs but strengthen them. This is also the same of the Civil War. Both sides felt God was with them and prayed to the same God for protection and victory. The same in war after war in Europe over a thousand years. My dear Jewish friends tears come to my heart and my eyes when I think of all of the horror that came to you during the holocaust. But if we don't teach our children to understand the heart of the men that oh so easily could do such a thing then their hearts will never understand that it was horror and history continues to repeat itself over and over as it has done and will do.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • paulronco

      There is a clear distinction between teaching children WHY some people think like that and teaching them TO think like that.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Mike Wallace

      paulronco, why do you refuse to use valid logic? More importantly, why do you seem so against an assignment that would teach children the use of logic? Many children and even adults have a difficult time understanding how or why people went along with Nazism. Just teaching them "this is what they did" or "this is what they thought" does not answer the question of how or why.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  7. lol??

    In Illinoisey they teach s*ex education live on stage at the university level to the chagrin of the middle school boyz.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • rj

      'tarded dude

      April 15, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Akira

      What an Illinoisy?

      April 15, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  8. Keel Hauler

    He has a good point. What we are teaching young people by making a fuss over this assignment is that we are slaves to the PC mentality that let's us get nothing done out of fear of offending someone, and sheltering our young kids to the point of numb stupidity. Nobody said reality is pleasant, and anything less than reality is not teaching well.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • paulronco

      What, it's suddenly "PC" now to not want teachers to teach our kids how to think like Hitler?

      April 15, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • lol??

      Socies have been observed enjoying K*inky D&N, dumb and numb. ZOMBIE POWER!

      April 15, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • Alarmed

      It scares people to think that that arguments provided in that assignment could be found credulous

      April 15, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • Billy

      The article could be about hymnals and the idiot lol?? poster would still be calling them "socies". Just browse through some of the other articles.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • lol??

      YA, national socies runned amucked

      April 15, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • paulronco

      "It scares people to think that that arguments provided in that assignment could be found credulous"

      You are absolutely correct. This does not preclude, however, that the arguments are in fact credulous. Hitler was insane, and his ideology was bankrupt.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  9. Reef

    Michelle Obama hates you if you're white and/or poor.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • Doobs

      Go take your meds.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  10. Red Dwarf

    So to the conservative ignoramous, learning about Nazi's and their methods and their ideology equates to becoming Nazi's and promoting their ideology. Is this like those morons who think teach s e x education at a young age will create a generation of perverts? What a munch of maroons...

    "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." – Edmund Burke

    The classroom is the best place for learning all about our past, good and bad, and the best way to get kid's to learn something is to put them in the shoes of those people in history we want them to learn about, both what to do and what not to do. I highly doubt this assignment was in any way an endoresement of Nazi ideology so anyone who is getting all upset is doing so for no reason and should certainly not be outraged by a teacher trying their best to get through to our kids.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Keel Hauler

      Well stated. I agree.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Jeremy H

      First, I agree with you that we must learn from the evil of Nazism in order to prevent it from happening again. Second, why do people always want to make everything a political argument? Moreover, if anything, the response by the superintendent is a load of liberal touchy-feely "we can't offend anyone at any time" politically correct manure.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  11. The fact of the matter

    So your take is that nothing was wrong with the Nazi assignment. Well, "your take" is absolutely, unequivocally, wrong. Everything was wrong with it; from its conception to its issue.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Blah

      I might agree if you bothered to fvcking explain why you feel that way.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Red Dwarf

      I'm sure you would much rather have your children using their imagination skills accepting your invented God then in a classroom learning actual history.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  12. mrmcconnell14

    We can't complain about the state of the educational system and then punish teachers for takings risks they believe will help stretch the ways their students think about things. After completing this assignment, a student could turn around and write an essay from a more traditional perspective that would be ten times better than it would have been without this assignment.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • paulronco

      Seventy years ago, 77 million human beings died in the process of stopping the Nazi regime, which almost took over the world. If the assignment had asked these kids to think like al Qaeda's leaders, do you think we would be having this discussion? The assignment would have been no less effective if it had asked kids to persuade those brainwashed into the Hitler cult of personality to abandon their theology. The idea that ANY high school teacher would promote American youth to think like leaders of that regime, as if it were some sort of exercise in creative writing, is outrageous and appalling.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  13. lol??

    What pure socie needs a leader? A sick one. A real sick puppy.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • Akira

      Please learn what the word socialust means before you attempt to use it in a post.
      Thank you.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  14. Hello

    PLEASE TELL THE GOOD PEOPLE AT Boston University THAT THEY HAVE A SICK MINDED TEACHER EMPLOYED ON THEIR STAFF

    April 15, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • STFU

      Idiot.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • Doobs

      Uh, oh. Hello has started frothing at the mouth.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  15. paulronco

    Oh please. As the recent Exxon spill in Arkansas goes almost completely unreported, why does CNN always put up a facade of neutrality by showcasing the most unsympathetic of devil's advocates? The assignment was absurd. Maybe appropriate for Slytherin House, and that's about it.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • Alarmed

      What would have been terrible is if an assignment turned in gave rise to the credibility of the argument.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Beth

      Hello, paulronco, I would please like to order one of those salad spinners. Where should I send payment?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  16. Kiwi

    you've got to be kidding. i give all the credit to the students who refused to do that messed up assignment. critical thinking is good, but only if you let the students think for themselves.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  17. The mind of a student

    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

    S Prothero- why would you subject students to horrible feelings? are you a psycho?

    April 15, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Hello

      No he is unemployed after submitting this, his last master piece

      April 15, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • Dr. Maynard PhD

      In his opinion Stephen thinks this assignment will do students some good, in our opinion Prothero needs some psychological counselling.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • lol??

      Pwobably a closet socie bully.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • Chuckles

      Challenging students to write something uncomfortable isn't bad, this particular assignment notwithstanding. Being pushed out of your comfort zone is an especially useful tool, this assignment however misused that tool and the teacher is now paying the consequence for it.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • paulronco

      Good for her.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Student's shouldn't be asked to confront the atrocities of history in a personal and viseral way that makes it very real to them?

      Are you serious?

      How then can they learn what humans are capable of and just how easy this is to accomplish?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  18. Hello

    Ahhh Stephen, you're wrong silly boy. Its was not the Jews that killed Jesus, it was the Sadducee Priests and calling them Jews is blasphemy. I am such a Priest dolt. And PS> he deserved to die

    April 15, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • Atheist, me?

      So you imagine that you are more intelligent than a professor of theology?
      by the way he did not write that, a Nazi theologian did! So much for being rational and intelligent!

      April 15, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  19. lol??

    It's an internal socie pwoblem.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  20. Hello

    Stephen says "I think it will do them some good." Really, so he knows whats good for others? Genius Stephen will be UNEMPLOYED SOON

    April 15, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Pauline

      Whaaaaaa – what a baby you are!

      April 15, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • Hello

      Pauline, rather to be a baby than a bafoon

      April 15, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Keel Hauler

      Knowledge doesn't have to be pleasant to be valuable. Be more open-minded. The guy is a teacher for reason.
      T

      April 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
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