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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. James Schmacker

    I think the assignment is a good idea. It challenges the students in many ways. For a writer it is easier to write about something they support. this assignment teaches how to leave personal convictions aside, and write a persuasive paper. It will also teach students to look at other propaganda and identify the methods authors use to make non-sequiturs appear logical and convincing. In short, a better writer is usually also a more critical reader and thinker.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • paulronco

      >> It challenges the students in many ways.

      Yeah, such as teaching them to think like a murderer.

      >> this assignment teaches how to leave personal convictions aside, and write a persuasive paper. It will also teach students to look at other propaganda and identify the methods authors use to make non-sequiturs appear logical and convincing.

      Again, what part of telling a child to justify killing Jews is "teaching them to look at other propaganda and identify the methods authors use to make non-sequiturs appear logical and convincing?"

      April 15, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • George

      paulronco – you sound like a perfect candidate for a more simplified version of the course!

      April 15, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • paulronco

      I'm not sure what the course would look like, then. Killing people because you don't like them is about as simple as it gets.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • George

      Something very very simple, ronco; like ronco-simple.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
    • 54StaryNights

      It also helps them see how easy it is to fall for such propaganda and buy into it. It is a really great exercise to show someone the very pernicious nature of propaganda.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
  2. pauleky

    Nope, can't have critical thinking. No sirree. Of course, critical thinking would also make the CNN Belief Blog unnecessary, but I digress...

    April 15, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • JFCanton

      I imagine most critical thinkers would disagree with that.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  3. Fred

    Christians are so inbred at this point it's frightening. They're starting to meow like old house cats.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Whose definition of "Christian" are we using? If it's not the backwoods one (my church or no church) it would be hard to describe the most diverse religious population in the world as "inbred."

      April 15, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  4. 54StaryNights

    When I first heard a very brief report about this assignment, I had mixed feelings about it. I think the basic assignment of writing propaganda in support of an extreme position is a useful idea. I had misgivings about asking the students to write anti-jewish propaganda in support of the Nazi stance just because anti-semitism is still a problem here and in other parts of the world. The teacher could still have used the valuable basic idea of this assignment by creating two fictional groups in a fictional society and having the students write propaganda in support of something like isolating them on an island for life. A practical understanding of propaganda is invaluable especially in a democratic republic. We are subjected to it every day though not in as extreme a form as what took place in Nazi Germany. Still, we and our children need to learn how harmful it is in all its forms and how to recognize it. Don't we already see a version of it infiltrating our children's lives through cyber bullying on the internet? It may not be government sponsored propaganda, but it is social propaganda.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • paulronco

      >> The teacher could still have used the valuable basic idea of this assignment by creating two fictional groups in a fictional society and having the students write propaganda in support of something like isolating them on an island for life.

      Also barbaric. Might as well have them justify North Korean concentration camps.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @paulronco,

      apparently you were never on a debate team.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • paulronco

      I'm debating whether or not it's ever justified to teach a minor to think like a racist. I don't think it is. As someone pointed out, an assignment like this might be useful for adults who've reached college-level, but to dabble with it at the high school level is dangerous and inappropriate.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      You could argue that soph0mores might be too young for this topic – but not high school seniors.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  5. paulronco

    You know, I went to Boston University. It insults me that it's hiring professors who can write an opinion piece like this, let alone get it published by CNN.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
  6. Stephen Hawking is an Idiot

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncVvN6-Fwa8

    April 15, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • JFCanton

      I guess I'm pleased to see that there are videos competing with the materialists who don't appear to realize that philosophy covered their arguments 2500 years ago.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:57 pm |

    • Bbbboooorrrriiinnnggg!!!!! Contestants on Wheel of Fortune buy vowels. Christian musicians need to buy a few more chords.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Christian music has PLENTY of chords; they're just hard to play on the guitar. But the same comment could go for pop music overall?

      April 15, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  7. Anthony Coggins

    As a social studies and government teacher myself, I give kudos to the Albany teacher. We are told daily we need to get kids to think "outside the box." Guess what – she did what was asked and is now being vilified for it. She challenged her students, and it sounds as many of them did not have the capability or support at home to think critically. A creative assignment, one that makes a point, is not always the easiest assignment. Supporting an opposite viewpoint is NOT indoctrination – it is showing one argument so you can develop YOUR argument in support or against. Kids have opinions on many things – unfortunately, many just parrot their parents. God forbid you ask a student to think for themselves.

    And as for Mr. Prothero, well written! Keep up the great work.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • lol??

      How 'bout lettin' em run at recess?? Work off some steam, ya know??

      April 15, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • paulronco

      >> God forbid you ask a student to think for themselves.

      No, God forbid you ask a student to think like a Nazi. In case you didn't know, there's a difference.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • What? Me Worry?

      I agree that this was a very bold assignment to encourage students to look at society and culture from a different viewpoint! I salute this teacher for attempting to go far beyond the status quo and generate some real thought provoking ideas and a better understanding of what propaganda is and how it is used! The entire issue of nazi ideology and anti-semitism certainly SHOULD provoke uneasy feelings and negative sentiments! By analyzing the misuse of facts and fictional events, students can learn how to recognize and disprove such destructive and caustic propaganda!

      April 15, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • paulronco

      >> I salute this teacher for attempting to go far beyond the status quo and generate some real thought provoking ideas and a better understanding of what propaganda is and how it is used!

      What kind of salute are you going to give? The Hitler salute, or the American version?

      April 15, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  8. Dave

    To paraphrase Talleyrand, this was worse than immoral; it was a blunder. Intellectually, I agree with you. But as many of these comments demonstrate, Nazism and the Holocaust are one of those subjects that generate such strong emotions that many people are simply incapable of thinking about anything to do with them rationally or analytically. In short, no matter how justifiable this assignment might have been, as an academic exercise and teaching tool, the teacher should've known better.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      Ma'am, you are incorrect. Shall we simply pretend as though the holocaust never happened? Brush it under the carpet perhaps because the thought of mentioning it might bring about the vague discomfort of a nether itch? Pipe thine self down and relax. It is not just history. Similar tactics are still in use today, and understanding such a tool may help to bring about its collapse. Enjoy some tea, a common sense cookie and a hearty bowl of learn to keep your fingers off of the keyboard when you are incapable of providing valuable information rather than a misinformed opinion.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • paulronco

      Nice try, but don't try to reduce the opposition's arguments to misplaced emotionalism. Nazism is not up for debate; it should be "settled law," and to suggest that 400,000 Americans died in WWII for an opinion is insulting. For kids who are old enough, I can support certain types of RELEVANT debates for which I've personally taken a side, such as abortion rights or whether or not we should drill in the Arctic, but encouraging kids to think like Nazis is indefensible.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • paulronco

      Especially since we have so many members of Congress who are doing it for them, I might add.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  9. The One True Scottsman

    "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."

    That's the whole point. They are showing how the Nazi followers weren;t making a rational decision based on their own racist beliefes so much as they were steered into followership through strong propaganda and indoctrination. While I find this assignment to be a bit of a radical (and deliberately controversial) way of making that point, I don't think this teacher should be accused of trying to indoctrinate the students into anit semitism.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
    • paulronco

      >> They are showing how the Nazi followers weren;t making a rational decision based on their own racist beliefes so much as they were steered into followership through strong propaganda and indoctrination.

      Excuse me, but am I missing something here? What part of telling a child to justify killing Jews is "showing how the Nazi followers weren't making a rational decision?"

      April 15, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      Paul, you need to calm down, Ma'am.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  10. William Demuth

    Perhaps some are afraid to expect children to think.

    A shame really, because the truth about Christian complicity in the holocaust is something to be shouted from the roof tops.

    Nazi's were Christian, They celebrated Christmas at Aushwitz. They gassed little kids, made lampshades out of them and them went home and sang carols.

    To deny it is to deny the truth, which is what scares the daylights out of so many.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • lol??

      Dimwit socies hate Christians. Take yer Obama Oath today while you still have time.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • Moronic redneck

      I agree with LOL??

      April 15, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • jackson

      LOL! lampshades? gassed kids? Christmas Carols? What propaganda are you buying into?

      April 15, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • paulronco

      >> Perhaps some are afraid to expect children to think.

      I'm afraid of expecting children to think like Nazis, yeah. Read "The Wave" (based on a true story) if you don't understand how these types of assignments can get out of control, fast. In the end, the teacher made something good out of it, but not before someone was almost killed out on the playground.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Are we lacking in knowledge about this? Most Germans were theoretically Christian. Ergo, so were the Nazis.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • paulronco

      The Nazis weren't Christian, in fact Hitler despised Christ. For the brief thirteen years during which they ruled, they were functionally atheist, but that is not to say that Hitler didn't have plans. The Franken-religion Hitler was dabbling in mixed elements of Christianity, minus Christ, and Teutonic ritual, with himself at the center.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • JFCanton

      They did need a lot of non-adherents to go along with them to support the overall Nazi enterprise. But the camps were also hidden from most Germans-if you have indoctrinated young Nazi men staffing the place, you're not going to get a lot of thinking going on.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
    • Angelique

      You couldn't be further from the truth paulroncho. Hitler was more bothered by atheists than he was by those whom he thought to be kindred Christians.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • William Demuth

      paulronco

      Dude, that is the WRONG nonesense in here

      Many here are far to read. Start with Mein Kamf, and then extend out to over 500 direct quotes from the Fuhrer himself.

      Christianity was at the CORE of the Nazi ideology, and no serious scholar of the times might deny it.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • paulronco

      Hitler was a pragmatic opportunist, but that doesn't mean he believed in anything he happened to adopt. He used Christianity because it was there, and to the extent that it gave him control over his long-term plans, just as he used Stalin, just as he used Chamberlain, just as he used Mussolini. In fact, Hitler despised Judeo-Christianity, and anyone who acknowledges that Christianity was led by a man who called himself the King of the Jews knows it. Hitler had a plan for what "Christianity" was going to morph into, and it was not going to have anything to do with Christ.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
  11. Ann

    IIf anyone was wondering why teachers are protected by tenure THIS is why.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  12. Pilot of Warbirds

    As the descendant of family members who fought against, were wounded, or died at the hands of the Nazi war machine, I highly applaud this assignment. As a nation, we must seek the truth behind how other nations can engage their populations into heinous acts, if not just to understand how it occurs, but how it can be prevented.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • What? Me Worry?

      I agree! Well Stated! Applause!!!!

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

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    The better, easier and safer assignment for all concerned: Convince the Boston U's administration that the Religion Department's name should be changed to the Mostly Myth Department. We can help by providing the proper study guides for the assignment and some ideas about retraining the likes of Stevie P.

    Also see p. 3 for some starting points for retraining Stevie P.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  14. Praetorian

    But why the Third Reich? I was once given the unenviable assignment of writing a legal brief defending a 'law' that specifed that a priest or other clerical person must be present each time an abortion is performed, as a life was being taken. I totally disagreed with tha position, but I defended the 'law' nevertheless. Had I been given the Third Reich assignment, I would have simply refused and accepted whatever consequences that resulted.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      Would you like a cookie, ma'am? I'll see if I can dig one up. Along with a small pile of common sense. You keep leaving it in odd places. Like the toilet. At the bar. Under your work boots. You KNOW you will never find it there.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  15. derp

    "In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison"

    "The personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew."

    “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

    Adolf Hitler

    Hitler was christian. He murdered jews, atheists, gays and anyone else who did not fit the "christian ideal". He makes this very clear throughout his reign.

    I know it sucks having to admit the he is one of yours, but he was.

    Atheists have no reason to single out jews.

    Christian zealots do.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • lol??

      Obvious socie hate for Christians. Hitler went after the wrong Jews? The socies won't make that mistake again.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • TheTruth

      Sorry Derp, Hitler wasn't a Christian. He used that as an excuse for some things, claimed otherwise when it suited his purpose. History shows that Hitler was a devout occultist – no historian disputes this fact.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • What? Me Worry?

      You are quite correct! The truth often hurts to acknowledge, but will make you a better person for admitting it!

      April 15, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • Brock

      Hitler certainly thought himself a Christian. Plus, I believe he was a baptized Catholic. You don't get out of that club easily.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  16. Laurie in Spokane

    There's nothing intrinsically wrong about writing about the holocaust, or about the resons for it. My object with this exercise is it was to be graded. Graded according to whose parameters? someone who is Anti-semite? Discussion, debate and argument are all good, grading one's opinions is not.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      Well hey then, let's pretend DPRK does not exist either! Because YOU DON'T WANT TO DO IT.

      You do realize, kind gentleman SIR, that the DPRK functions in propaganda. Its delightful people are bombarded with it. Now, how do you suppose your dear friends the GERMANS managed to brainwash its country? Well then, perhaps it's time you hurried along to school!

      April 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Dont

      The article states, "three English classes". Think maybe they would be graded on their abilities to spell and/or create a sentence or aparagraph. Maybe the teacher is looking for the ability to think through an issue and justify their position without regard to whether the teacher agreed or not, but based solely on their ability to put mind to paper.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • What? Me Worry?

      I do not know this teacher, but I would guess that they were expecting the students to develop a better grasp and ability to recognize manipulative propaganda by attempting to create a version of their own "pretend" propaganda! If you can accurately replicate the misuse of half-truths and fabricated lies, you will be better able to recognize such manipulative story telling in real life situations! In other words, if you learn to think like your enemy, you will have the upper hand when negotiating with them!

      April 15, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
  17. Mark

    I remember when we were studying the Holocaust. Our teacher gave us an introduction that made us a bit uncomfortable, well done by her. She wanted to put us in the shoes of a person in the concentration camp forced to work, work, work and be yelled at and berated. Of course there is only so much you can do in an eighth grade environment in the U.S. She made us write an essay using our non writing hand. She would then walk around to each of us and yell about the awful handwriting. Hurl insults about how slowly we were writing. (Insults meaning something you can yell at an eighth grader without getting fired of course.) Chewed us out over why we couldn't form coherent thoughts under that treatment. It was ... an unsettling experience. When done she went back to her normal mild mannered self and asked us all to give our thoughts and emotions over the ordeal. Frustration, anger, guilt were some of the big words. Feeling incompetent to live up to standards. That led quickly into a study of the history of the Holocaust, the rise of Hitler, the propaganda, the blaming the Jews for everything, the ghettos, the grim conditions of the concentration camps, the abuses, the attacks, and ultimately the genocide. We read the Diary of Anne Frank and hearing that little girl's voice show through in her words was very troubling to say the least.

    There are few lessons in history I remember better from my high school years than the Holocaust.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • lol??

      The socies made an error going after the "not a Jew". They are now correcting that mistake and going after Christians.

      "Rom 2:28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither [is that] circu*mcision, which is outward in the flesh:"

      April 15, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  18. Michael

    Seriously, you would think that there would be a more suitable topic that could have met the needs for this assignment. A little more thought should have been put into this assignment before it was given to students.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • What? Me Worry?

      By "suitable topic" , I presume you mean an issue that is not controversial nor offensive in any way! Am I correct?
      Please give us an example of your so-called "suitable topic" and explain how such a innocuous and tame topic would provide any real thought provoking experiences from which the students can discuss and learn !?

      April 15, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  19. lol??

    Rev Wright sayz to be careful how you handle the Obama Oath. Something about a CTA bus.

    April 15, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  20. JFCanton

    I don't think this teacher should have been suspended-it's a curable problem to have a bad idea. But what kind of responses did he expect to get? There isn't a deep well of creative potential in anti-Semitism, and whatever there was is probably lost to us after the fact.

    Also these kids weren't old enough to have the background in history necessary to understand where the material they might find in "research" came from. If they were going to produce a bunch of stuff that amounted to Shylock characterizations, for example... have they even read The Merchant of Venice yet?

    April 15, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      The children starved to death, beaten, tortured, baked in ovens and gassed wen't old enough to understand history either. Nor did they have the background to negotiate hostage releases.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      That statement, ma'am, was in reference to the children of the holocoaust.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
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