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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. Laurie in Spokane

    I cannot believe that any German who professed to be "Christian" actually supported Hitler and his beliefs. Much like today's "christians" who sayone thing and do another.. Do as I san not as I do.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
    • History

      Not any, but very nearly all German Catholics in the big cities supported Hitler and the Third Reich and every one of them claimed to be Christian and believed themselves doing Gods work, or so they said.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care!

      Well, Pope Pius XII supported HitIer, does that count for a xtian?

      April 15, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  2. Rationalintn

    The Nazi propaganda machine obviously worked very well, and accomplished the job it set out to do, for too long. Even today we should be asking, why otherwise good people went along with the Nazi's ideas? Why did so many people allow it to happen? In order to prevent this from ever happening again to ANY group of people, we need to understand the way the mind works. We need to understand what propaganda is, what it does, and how it could get people to allow the extermination of a particular group of human beings. This assignment is as relevant today as it was back in the 30s and 40s. In fact, it should make students feel bad. If a kid agrees with the Nazi ideas, that's a bigger problem. Putting yourself in someone else's position doesn't mean you automatically accept and agree with them, it just makes you aware of how others think and what influences them. Teaching young people to be aware of the harmful impact of propaganda is a worthy skill.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
    • paulronco

      >> This assignment is as relevant today as it was back in the 30s and 40s.

      Back in the thirties and forties, the "relevancy" of the argument caused 77 million people to die. Do you propose we should be teaching our kids how to "think" like that again?

      April 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • paulronco

      "If a kid agrees with the Nazi ideas, that's a bigger problem."

      The idea of the assignment is to get a kid to agree to the ideas. What do you think "persuasive writing" is all about? To leave dangling threads? To stop when you feel the argument can't be defended any longer? No. The idea is to tie it up with a neat ribbon and bow, and to prove your point beyond any type of argument. The assignment is frightening; not because it can be logically done, of course, as the Nazi ideology was logically indefensible, but because a high school kid might not know the difference, and might come to believe his own ideas. The neo-nazi movement is alive and growing in this country. Kids are actually joining it. This was an extremely dangerous and irresponsible assignment.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • Honey Badger Don't Care!

      Rationalism,

      Very true. And now we have organizations like Fox "news" that is doing the same thing. It is amazing how many people actually believe everything that they spew just because it comes from them.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  3. Luke

    Do Jews object when Christians are villified? I am also curious to know the ACLU's position on this controversy.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  4. George

    I don't think the exercise the author describes would be appropriate for high school students, but does seem like an interesting exercise for college level students. The subject would obviously be very sensitive to some – it might be more fair if the students were allowed to pick among a few different similarly-constructed scenarios.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  5. Carol Brothers

    Outrageous!!! This is an invitation to generate and to share paranoid, racial slurs under the pretense of intellectual development...This assignment reeks of the same sort of propaganda used to justify killing the Jews. It's a very good example of "the end justifies the means." as though the discomfort experienced by some of these students offers growth and insight. You wld think that these students had never had an opportrunity to confront their own sadistic, dark side...It is enormously naive and to explain this away as an excercise to promote growth...

    April 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  6. clubschadenfreude

    I'm pleased that Prothero didn't retreat to the "but but they weren't TrueChristians" when talking about Nazi being Christians and advocating for the destruction of the Jews. However, his admission that Christians can advocate fora lot of nasty things shows that Christianity is nothing special. It is a man-made idea to make believe that one person's opinion is more important than anothers by dint of divine approval. I do think that students should be made to think about just how awful it was for people to advocate for the destruction of others on the basis of religion. Religion, including Christianity, has been used to support awful things and good things. And that shows that there is no magical truth or "god behind any of it. They need to see people in power, be it religious or secular, can lie to get the things that they want and there is no god to absolve them of responsiblity.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • lol??

      Wanna keep your gubmint job? Take the Obama Oath today!

      April 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  7. G

    I wonder how those who approve of this teaching method would feel if it came out that the teacher was a member of the Aryan Nation, KKK, or some other pro-Nazi organization; or even just a closet neo-nazi. If they truly believe what they say, then they wouldn't care if the teacher was a racist because, to them, it's a worthwhile lesson. Personally, I believe there are other "creative" ways to teach the lessons of the holocaust without asking young minds to rationalize genocide.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      Yes. Let us now pretend as though it never happened to adhere to your delicate tastes and desires.

      <3

      April 15, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  8. What the?

    Stephen, you assigned your students to read a couple of books. What occurred in Albany was something completely different. If you candone the Albany class assignment then under the same line of thinking, teachers should give an assignment to write why they like to molest, torture, and kill young men so they can understand and avoid becoming a psycho killer like John Wayne Gacy. Come on Stephen, open your mind.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      I shall now provide you with a canned response I created for another fellow below.

      You obviously do not understand the point of the assignment.

      Greetings. Common sense has left for a while, and for you, probably won't be returning for at least 3 decades, or when it's just too late for any possible useful purpose.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • What the?

      I'm sorry, there is no logical point to the assignment.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      Oh yes there is, little hero!

      Make the students think about the mindset required in order to act upon such atrocities. Something not many are willing to do. Because if you ask someone to think for a moment, they might LURN SUMTHIN. Oh NO, not THAT! We can't LURN THEM NUTHIN! It's too graphic!

      April 15, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  9. paulronco

    The fundamental thing that people aren't understanding is that the Nazi ideology was completely indefensible in every way– morally, spiritually and logically. Their government was run by murderous thugs, their doctors were quacks, their distorted and cherry-picked versions of history, biology, and almost every other science known to man except, of course, weaponry was insulting and absurd. Why would anyone WANT a teacher to tell our kids to try to justify their ideology?

    April 15, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      You obviously do not understand the point of the assignment.

      Greetings. Common sense has left for a while, and for you, probably won't be returning for at least 3 decades, or when it's just too late for any possible useful purpose.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • paulronco

      For someone who's telling me I don't understand the point of the assignment, your argument please?

      April 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • Rajun Cajun

      To go through this exercise called "thought." If you do not understand evil, how will you ever know it when you see it? That was the point of the assignment in Albany: to discuss evil, to understand evil, to know evil when you see it. This way, it can't ever sneak up on you from behind like it did to the Germans of the early 20th Century.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
    • paulronco

      So I assume you have no problem with a teacher telling your kid to justify r**e? There's absolutely no difference. The only type of thought exercise worth pursuing is understanding the flawed arguments of the Nazi regime and refuting them. That is what teaches our kids to understand how the Germans were seduced, not telling them to think within the box that seduced them in the first place and then stop there.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  10. Rom Kitya

    You think nothing is wrong with teaching to hate in schools? You are wisted and evil.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • .

      Who is teaching them to hate? Plenty of that is taught in church.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  11. Susanna

    The author of this opinion piece fails to take in to account the differences between high school students and college students. College students are more mature both intellectually and emotionally. They can better cope with such an assignment. Also, a college student is probably taking the class as an elective and can drop it (or not take it in the first place) if the assignments are outrageous. A high school student is stuck with the course and the instructor and has no recourse when given an objectionable assignment. Having said all that, I will add that I think this assignment is repulsive and that there are far better ways to get students, even college students, to do critical thinking about the Holocaust.

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

      Good point, but even in a college environment the assignment would be outrageous. The only proper way for a college student to respond to it would be to say "it is impossible to rationalize irrational thinking." To that response I would give an "A" for understanding.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
  12. Brandon S

    Listen I'm all for freedom of speech and religion but c'mon man, this assignment is way over the line. I'm glad you could give us a Christian view of why it needs to be taught, but now let's think of the poor Jewish kids in the class who have to sympathize with a man who was responsible for killing 6,000,000 of their people. How about next assignment we get all the black kids to side with the slave owners and give us a report as to why slavery shouldn't be abolished. Or a paper sympathizing with the gun advocates arguing that school shootings aren't really as bad as society makes it out to be. Get your head out of your ass and grip reality, no student or person should ever be forced to support genocide, that's just confusing and in very poor taste.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  13. Alexander Katz

    I am enlighted to hear these wonderful thoughts so close to Holocaust remembrance day by Steven and the Social studies teacher above. My only minor point would be to also have students write an essay imagining what it would be like to be strangled to death inside of a dark and cold gas chamber as a Jewish child or hung during morning roll call for the heck of it, due to no reason other than the hatred that was inspired by the propaganda in the previous assignment. My point is unless the two assignments go hand in hand, the curriculum is unbalanced and inspires hatred.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  14. Jonquil

    Great opinion piece. We are not preparing our young people to have a defense against propagandists and to understand ho some the greatest horrors of humanity, have happened. From our safe distance in time, it seems incomprehensible that a people could "fall for" the Nazi agenda - a "civilized", modern, well educated and wealthy society. It's so hard to imagine anyone falling for it. But it happened. It happened so recently, in fact, that survivors of it are of a generation that is still passing away. Why do we punish our teachers for bringing-up these awful, historical "memories"? Why do we do this, when we later see how convinced some groups of people have been in the past, able to accept Nazi extermination efforts, slavery, genocide and the horrors some groups still allow today, with people poisoning the drinking water of little girls trying to go to school? One of the biggest, up-and-coming powers is an information-closed society that receives government propaganda in place of news.

    How is this assignment insensitive and irrelevant? How is keeping our young people docile, compliant and comfortable, proper training for understanding and combating propaganda? We're quick becoming a drony nation of milquetoast followers and we're sitting ducks for another horror of humanity.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  15. Atheist, me?

    If the Allies had not forced the Axis powers to learn the truth in an uncomfortable way WWIII would have been fought by now. The students in these countries weree made to do so. If America does this they will think twice about war.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  16. Christian Teacher

    Okay class, today we are going to do a little imagineering. First we are going to read a scripture, then we are going to imagine we are the integral parties and then express what we are thinking and feeling after the events in this scripture unfold... So let's start by reading Genesis 19:30-38

    "30 Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. 31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. 32 Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.” 33 That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up. 34 The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I slept with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” 35 So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up. 36 So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab[a]; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi[b]; he is the father of the Ammonites of today."

    So Kelly, imagine yourself as one of Lot's daughters... and Darrin, pretend you are her Dad... and this table is the cave in which they lived...

    Now remember to tell your parents you were learning your bible studies today... and what did we learn today? Thats right, incest is okay as long as there is a lot of heavy drinking involved... Okay, so for next week study up on how the Isrealites were given a land filled with milk and honeym all they had to do to get it was to commit genocide thorughout the countryside...

    April 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • Atheist, me?

      Where and when did the Bible say incest was ok in the passage? The guy was living as a hermit in no man's land! Who would punish him?! Also who would punish the women? Be more intelligent like a good Atheist would!

      April 15, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • Christian Teacher

      Lot was blessed by God and brother to Abraham and became father to two mighty nations through incest and the bible says nothing negative about this relationship. It does however have Isrealites getting spears run through them if they tried marrying women from the surrounding nations...

      April 15, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  17. AF

    This was an assignment given to three English classes that was supposed to bolster persuasive writing skills. This was not a history lesson or a lesson against propaganda. The assignment was to write persuasively that Jews are evil, terrible, and inhuman using Nazi propaganda as a source. There is no conceivable value to this assignment and there are so many other sources of information that could have been used to teach children persuasive writing.

    A scan of the assignment has been posted. Here is an excerpt: '"You do not have a choice in your position. You must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!'"

    Steven Prothero: did you actually read the assignment and how it was assigned? I cannot understand anyone that defends this assignment. Again, it was an English class persuasive writing assignment, not a history lecture. Someone else posted here saying a similarly offensive assignment would be "write an essay justifying the lynching of blacks using KKK propaganda as your source." Fully agree.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
    • .

      We'll, what better way of teaching a persuasive writing skill than taking a totally repulsive topic and arguing FOR it?
      The KKK would teach it just as well.
      If we're going to try and protect everyone's delicate little sensibilies, the Bible should never be taught either. Thank goodness it's NOT in public schools.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      LET'S JUST CALM DOWN. The assignment was creative. I enjoyed it.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • Jonquil

      But doesn't that teach them the whole point of propaganda; that it can be used to manipulate people into doing things that are horrible and sinister and justifying them as a group? Ignoring awful things doesn't teach our kids how to combat them and understand when they, themselves, are being manipulated. Maybe the follow-up discussion about this assignment was the most important part, but it never got to that point.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  18. AngryJew

    There is nothing wrong with deconstructing the past. It is better that these young students do it under the guidance of their teacher than on some street corner. The Jewish holocaust is not sacrosanct or different from the other holocausts. Good job to the teacher.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  19. Blablabla

    Good try, but the point of the assignment was not to teach about how propaganda works. It was a persuasive writing exercise. I had a similar assignment in a high school English class. Imagining how an opponent might be thinking and how he might present the opposing point of view allows a writer to anticipate objections and compose a piece of writing that addresses them. All the teacher had to do was leave the topic up to the students, allowing them to argue ANY point of view they didn't actually support. Forcing a sensitive topic like this on a whole class was ridiculous. Not offensive, but still risky. The teacher should have known better.

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

      There is nothing wrong with studying or writing about the Holocaust. The teacher was doing his job. He did not tell the students to believe the writing.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  20. Social Studies Teacher

    I agree with you Stephen. I think that this is a great assignment to take on. Taking on the position of someone or something you do not believe in is the pinnacle of critical thinking. Perhaps the assignment could have been worded differently like you state. It is not like she was asking them to become Nazi's. One of the standards that I need to teach is why were the Jewish people persecuted against and to truly understand that you almost have to take on the role of an anti-semite.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
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