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. janayrmc

    Critical thinking is not a crime against Jesus, the government, or your personal liberties. Why should teaching this skill be reserved for college students?

    April 15, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • Mike Totty


      April 15, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
    • rapierpoint

      Based on reading some of the replies here, I'd say there are a lot of people that would be extremely happy if critical thinking ceased to exist completely.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • College vs High School is the "Straw Man" in your argument

      You made a very strong argument for teaching this lesson, until you compared college level adults to high-school children, that really is the cornerstone on why your article does not hold muster. College is absolutely an acceptable place for controversial lessons such as this one, but most kids in high-school are not emotionally equipped for such an assignment.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  2. Mike Totty

    I wonder if anyone took the time to consider the purpose of the exercise outside of the context of the topic. It was persuasive writing. It doesn't take much skill or craft to "persuade" an audience to agree with something everyone finds comfortable. Sophistry is a lost art in our society. A writer (or lawyer, or judge, or lawmaker) needs to be able to craft a cogent argument in support of a topic, an argument that is fundamentally sound, logical and self-consistent. This is the basis for intelligent discourse.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  3. Vic

    !Know Your Dangerous Ideologies!


    April 15, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  4. Gennie

    What is not clear to me in this assignment is what the consequence would be for taking an anti-nazi stance. I, being Jewish and having family – both Jewish and non-Jewish – who left Europe to escape them, could have never written a pro-nazi piece. If within the confines of the assignment I expressed that I would rather be dead then be a nazi, would I have still received a passing grade? If the answer is no, then we have a problem.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • Vic


      April 15, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • John Lubeck

      Gennie, The teacher here is clearly intelligent and not motivated by racial hatred. I would certainly guess that she (like hopefully all of us) would be sensitive to your background and understand that you could not participate. That however, does not make her assignment wrong in any way.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  5. Berman

    Simply outrageous. It is admirable to teach kids about the Holocaust and it is important to show them the propaganda, but to make them write a position in support of it? Absolutely unacceptable. What about having them write a paper neutrally exploring the themes used, or – even better – have them write an assignment NEGATING all the falsehoods in the propaganda? You need to climb down from your ivory tower and visit an eye doctor because your years up there have left you blind.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • rapierpoint

      Bet you never had to debate or write a persuasive paper in favor of a subject you didn't believe in. It should be an integral part of the education process.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  6. maxx


    April 15, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Tim

      Add to that a hate monger

      April 15, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  7. Dan Magruder

    This article simply made me happy I made the last second choice to attend a university other than Boston U.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  8. Ben Scott

    Youre an idiot.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • Tom


      April 15, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  9. AMR

    Professor, there is a BIG difference between what the mind of a college student, like yours at Georgia State, and those of High School students can process when it comes to tragic events. I do agree that to current teenagers, unless they have a grandparent who knew people that were directly affected by the Holocaust, they are 2 generations removed from WWII. To them, the Holocaust is as foreign a concept as the Vietnan War. So, yes, all of these wars should be a BIG part of the cirirculum, but this teacher went about it the wrong way, and none of us is in a position to decide what his intentions were. He or she should speak for themselves.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  10. M Hindin

    Tthere is a major difference bewteen a high school and college assignmet, namely the age and maturity of the students, and the fact that college is voluntary and not compusory. This important topic could have been handled in a much smarter way including a review by school administration or a teacher comittee, and notification of parents. Chances are they would have come up with a much smarter way to approach the subject.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • Nogimus Prime

      Hear, hear!

      April 15, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • rapierpoint

      Sorry, but a good deal of school administrations tend to be divorced from the actual process of education and more concerned with getting money. Likewise, quite a lot of parents do not concern themselves with their children's education, much less have the background to determine the best way to present material and/or make assignments.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Nunya

      High school being required and college optional sounds like a great reason to have it in high school then, so that it educates everyone instead of just a few people who want to choose the course where it would be assigned in college.

      And as far as maturity level, high school students are well capable of handling such things. If yours aren't, then you're raising emotionally and intellectually stunted offspring. Far younger children experienced the Holocaust first hand and made it through – if older pampered American brats can't handle even being asked to think about it, then our society is in pretty sad shape...

      April 15, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  11. Kudos

    JSP – Probably, but in what context? In what way have 6 million Muslims been casually slaughtered with agreement? Defamation is one thing and not even in the same context. I wholeheartedly support this assignment and wish more teachers would make their students think!

    April 15, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  12. Nogimus Prime

    Good. Have that teacher to your university. Just keep her away from our kids. I have several thoughts about your article. First, regarding Christians, since you fail to address fascism as the main factor behind the hatred of the Jews. Yes, Christianity has dark histories, just as any religious or political doctrine has. They also have shed many lights in dark places through acts of charity, and specifically during the 2nd Holocaust heroism through helping many Jews survive Nazi Germany throughout their reign of terror. I say the 2nd, bc as you probably are aware, the first Holocaust was committed by Christians lead by Peter the Hermit outside of Constantinople on their way to the Levant during the First Crusade. Now on top of this it would be a logical point to argue that many of the Christians during the Crusades and Nazi Germany were not true Christians at all. To be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ with the goal being to be as Christ-like as possible. Being as how Christ died for all sinner's sins, Jews included, it would be illogical for any true Christian to accept the indoctrination that Jews should be eliminated bc of their killing of Christ.
    As far as the assignment itself goes, I fail to see anything positive that would come of this assignment. Is there a rational fear that someday America might begin its' own holocaust of the Jews? And by Christians (Since they seem to be of great concern to you)? Give me a break. If anything this assignment, being structured how it was, only teaches that in a terrible time and place such as Nazi Germany, you must either conform or lie about your conformity to survive. It teaches nothing of heroism or standing up for what's right in the face of evil. Many people did that during Nazi Germany and either suffered lower citizen status or were put to death for standing up for what was right. More people than that ignored or did as the assignment stated and have to live the rest of their lives knowing the evil that they enabled by not standing up for right. Which is worse. I'd pick the former, but maybe that's bc I wasn't indoctrinated by the likes of you or this New York teacher. And if you're asking how we can prevent events like this from happening in the future if we don't assign things like this to our children, the answer is very simple. Teach them about the holocaust. Teach them about the inhumanity of it and the suffering and human indignity, and most children will understand quickly how wrong it is/was. Pretty simple. You don't need to read Mein Kampf or write a paper about why it's okay to persecute Jews to understand what was wrong about the Holocaust.
    Of course you're a well renowned professor with a degree, so what do I know? Ha.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • Kudos

      You are a sadly informed person.

      The percentage of good christians in Germany who helped was so small as to be negligible. so much for your vaunted "christ like" behavior.

      Those same christians refused the entry of the Jews to America, Great Britain and other "Christian" countries. And your blind ignorance to force your children to think, to understand and to see how these events occur dooms us to repeating them.

      Every time a teacher runs a scenario that tests the willingness of students to conform – it shows just how little they have learned. Let them learn.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • Tim

      Good point!

      April 15, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • rapierpoint

      What do you know? Apparently very little concerning the history of the relationship between Christians and Jews. You might want to do a bit more research. The idea of Christ-like Christians (loving and accepting of others) is pretty much a fairy-tale throughout the centuries. Even today, you find very little tolerance. (There are some, but few and far between).

      But rather than endorse and encourage an education that actually makes students think (and perhaps the assignment could have been done in a more palatable manner), it sounds like you would prefer the current brand of education that pretty much is cookie cutter designed to get students to pass standardized tests and does relatively little to prepare the kids for the real world, much less college.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • Nogimus Prime

      @ Kudos. We may disagree, but to call me mis-informed only shows your trollish intellect in reality. WW2 is a subject I have studied more than any other time period in human history. Also, my Grandpa served as a Navy Engineer on a Pacific A-toll, lost a younger brother in the Pacific campaign, had two additional brothers who served in the Pacific, and one brother who served in the Air Corpse in the European campaign, successfully flying 42 bombing missions over German controlled territories and Germany itself. So as you might imagine, my fascination runs pretty high in this area. On top of that you don't really support your theory of my low intellect with more than flimsy emotional rhetoric, so maybe your lashing out at me bc you're unhappy with your status in life? Could it be? If it was Late Night Poker, I'd have a 99% winning hand against you. Say hello to all your friends in your cave for me please. :p

      April 15, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  13. Truthbetold

    Great education gives a visceral reaction one way or another. Mission accomplished. Instead most people would prefer we just continue to regurgitate the politically correct view that doesn't ruffle any feathers. This teacher did not say "I think Nazi's were right and you're all going to write an article agreeing with me". Its clear from the responses on here many were not encouraged to think critically and examine opposing views without actually agreeing with those views. No wonder our current political discourse is so screwed up....

    April 15, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  14. reasonablebe

    i tend to agree with this author. i do not think it is outrageous or inappropriate for high school teachers to require their students look analytically at appalling things and be able to argue in support of either side (both sides). this not only makes the students consider the issue more deeply, including those that are very disturbing and unsettling, but it makes them look at both sides whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, and helps them understand how and why things go wrong. it helps them to recognize propaganda and group mind set, and the fear of opposition when in the minority that goes with it.

    we are doomed to repeat our errors if we do not face them fully and if we do not teach them fully. we are similarly doomed if we do not make our children learn how to analyze and the power of persuasion, and its good and bad consequences.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Nogimus Prime

      What grade would you receive if instead of writing an argument for, you wrote an argument against and were aware of the consequences your stance might incur upon you. But you simply cannot stand up for the discrimination of or murder of another human being? Think they would've got an A? Guess we'll never really know, will we.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • gabe

      I agree in this day and age to forbid something like this is to think that something like Nazi Germany will never happen again. we need to understand the reasons for such horrible events and one of the ways to do that is to examine both sides. and its not just the college kids who need to think about this stuff. I mean was Nazi Germany started because of college grads?

      April 15, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  15. wrm

    I agree (for a change). It is a valuable lesson. Learning to think like the enemy does not make one the enemy. I guess we can all just bury our head and pretend that there was something fundamentally wrong with the Germans (ie, evil).

    April 15, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  16. dlevit

    Well...you should have been fired.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  17. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    Class, a new topic for you today.

    Imagine that you are in a Philadelphia public house in 1775.

    Those on my right will prepare arguments that the revolution is justified.

    Those on my left will prepare arguments that no matter what the crown did, the New England colonies had been anti-monarchist Cromwellian puritans for 140 years and looked for any excuse to revolt and the Virginians joined them in hopes of an Indian land grab in the Ohio territory which they considered theirs by charter.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
    • Tom

      That sounds like a great idea!

      April 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  18. Robert V

    This sounded like a very valuable exercise, provided it was placed in the proper context (which it appears the teacher had done). I disagree that 10th graders are "too young". They are (or should be) learning about many complex issues that involve moral ambiguity. They will soon be able to vote.
    There appears to be a very strong sense that the Nazis were so evil, they cannot even be discussed with any more nuance than that: they were evil. Everything about them was evil, there can be absolutely no qualifying elements, and nothing they did had any value. We can therefor not learn from them, because that would imply there's some educational value.
    This is a misguided mindset, because if we don't learn from them, how are we to avoid them in the future? There is no fundamental difference between the people of Germany in 1930 and the people of anywhere today. Propaganda exists today all around us, from many sources and using even more methods and avenues than ever before. Only now we call it Marketing, or Infotainment, or Fox News.
    I'm intrigued by the "sidestep" conclusions about Christians and the holocaust: don't we say the same things now about Islam and islamist terrorists? ("The terrorists aren't really islamic, because Islam doesn't allow terrorism.".) I bet the Nazis thought themselves to be Christians. Deal with that. I hope that teacher keeps teaching.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      I think soph0mores (but not seniors) might be young for this topic.

      A great topic for the soph0more age group to discuss would be gun control.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • Vic

      !Know Your Dangerous Ideologies!


      April 15, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  19. emory

    Our country's pathetic understanding of history is largely due to the anti-intelectual back lash offered from political groups (like the anti-defamation league) when responsible classroom instruction steps outside the realms of state accepted narratives and wonders into the intellectually challenging realms of political radicalization of a society at large. I applaud this teacher 100%– and while I overall support the ADL–I am completely disappointed by their attempts to squash intellectual freedom. Ironically, the actions of the ADL concerning this teacher is at least somewhat reminiscent of the political and academic control that Nazis conducted with such effectiveness within their brutal and totalitarian regime.
    I studied inter-war Germany extensively in graduate school and I must emphasize that the study of propaganda within the realms of political violence is more important to students today in our politically charged environment than in any other time in our nations history. Shame on you ADL, despite your noble goals, for your misguided, and dare I say, bullying actions.

    April 15, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • John Lubeck

      Well said, Thank-you

      April 15, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
  20. JSP

    Wonder if Mr. Prothero would have found it imaginative and constructive had the teacher instructed the students to justify defamation of Muslims?

    April 15, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • Goose66

      I believe the answer is an unequivocable yes. Why do you ask?

      April 15, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • Tom

      I bet he would!

      April 15, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
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