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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. Nd

    The author of this opinion obviously did not read the actual assignment- the teacher actually asked his/her students to "use any experience" you have to correlate to the propaganda. That is what is absolutely disgusting about this assignment.

    April 15, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  2. Bob K

    I feel sorry for anyone who cannot distinguish between learning about the Nazi propaganda machine and its treatment of Jews, and an persuasive writing assignment with the premise that Jews are evil. The teacher was wrong and should be disciplined or fired. It is pretty obvious that the same could have been accomplished if the premise was that some non-existent or fictious group was evil, e.g. Cavemen are evil, Aliens are evil, etc.

    April 15, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • Alias

      Bob K
      In order for the assignment to have any meaning, one would first have to have the realizatoin that the Jews were not evil, but victoms. From there you could learn a lot from having to try to make an arguement against them.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
  3. formerjewnowwiccan

    Unfortunately your students have not been exposed to any hatred by the Christians. Being that I come from a Jewish background, the way the topic was worded, could have been worded better. (ok, not the best grammer there) but I too am also Wiccan and a Witch and would have been equally hated by Christians as well.

    What most students do not realize, is that unfortunately the Jews have been persecuted throughout the ages and tried to be killed off several times. Those that were considered Witches, were persecuted just as badly, and are still under persecution today (weather you are a witch or not) and anyone accused can be killed and ostracised in Africa. The times have not changed that much.

    Also, if you look throughout history, when it has come to persecution, the majority of the time, it began with "Christian Values" and was authorizied by the Vatican. The Crusades, the Inqusition, The Holocaust, The American Indians, etc. Even today, in Africa, it is more often than not, a Christian behind the Witch attacks in Africa.

    Now I am not saying that Christianity itself is bad, just those people who worship in its name. (Also, I would like to note, that I do not believe all Christans are bad, just those that have major prejudices. Some of my best friends are Christian)

    April 15, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  4. GEORGE

    There is no other "evil" that causes genocide. We are all capable of it, or at least capable of ignoring it. The U.S., knowing full well that there was genocide being committed in Rwanda, purposefully evaded the issue so as to not get involved. We are currently witnessing the trial of a former Guatemalan president who exercised genocide against the Mayans, and who was fully backed by the the Reagan administration. The point of the exercise is to see how it easy it might be to being on the perpetrator side. Look at how Israel treats Palestinians currently. The holocaust goes on and on on.

    April 15, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • Alias

      This! Well said.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  5. lord toronaga

    I guess you can say that Hitler took out the 1%er's. Poverty almost disappeared after the money was confiscated. Just say'n. Hitler was a socialist liberal .. liberal socialist...

    April 15, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  6. bill constantine

    I remember in the 40s when America would get news about killing the Jews in Europe. I was14 years of age and running errands for a drugstore. He did say to me in a conversation that the only good thing that Hitler did is killing the Jews. The pharmamist was a college graduate. I passed it on as conversation.not knowing what it meant.. I am 84 years of age..I support the teacher as to why they are blaming Jews. I respect Jewish people but no I see Isreils leaving Israel for America. I asked them why? America is a better country is their reply. kind of gypsy to me...I do not like these ultra-orthodox jews who are prd-philes.

    April 15, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
  7. Super Nice Guy Josh

    How about we have a class where the teacher instructs the students to research and argue that blacks are evil and deserve to be murdered wholesale?

    April 15, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • CS

      Why not? It's the same premise.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      That would certainly fit into the persuasive argument theme of the assignment....the subject matter is not the point of the exercise, the point is critical thinking and making persuasive arguments..if the subject matter is controversial, it likley sparks stronger debate.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • Alias

      Josh, you are a moron.
      The teacher was not telling the children the jews were evil or that they should be killed.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • m123

      Always count on CNN to bring out the anti-Semite bigots.
      How about calling Muslims guilty for their slaughter at Jerusalem?
      That would go over well, I'm sure
      What a bigoted, idiotic, elitist snob the author is.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
  8. steve

    If assigned such an assignment at a university level, I would immediately drop the course, and raise the issue of appropriateness with the university. If assigned this at the high school level students should address this to parents, and outright refuse to participate. There is no reason a person has to do something as *stupid* as trying to walk in Nazi shoes to somehow feel empathy for either the Nazis or their victims. There is no "lesson" worth putting *anyone* in a argument in which definitive harm can arise due to forcing the person to the side of horrendous wrong. Instead of *learning* anything it just conjures horrific thoughts. Please!

    April 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
    • Fleur

      It's not about empathizing with the (in this case) Nazis. It is about trying to gain a deeper understanding of what motivated and drove them to think and act in the way that they did. That is not condoning their actions. We may not agree with what they did but they certainly did it. Why did they do it? How did they justify it? Is it not important to try to understand that? I think so. The same assignment could be done about many other topics e.g. slavery in the USA or empire building (e.g. in the UK).

      April 15, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
  9. Robert

    Isn't it amazing how this teacher is facing the wrath of our society for an assinment of which Jews were the subject but the so-called "teacher" at FAU in Boca Raton, who had his students write the name of Jesus on a sheet of paper and trample it, has suffered no repurcussions. And why do you think that is? It's pretty obvious, unless you're on ten years old or you're blind.

    April 15, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • Flappy

      That teacher has been placed on administrative leave by the school pending an investigation from the school. I would hardly say nothing is being done.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  10. cweinblatt

    Members of my family were terrified by such evil propaganda before they were murdered by Nazis. Are those here who fail to recognize the profoundly insensitive nature of this assignment similar to those German citizens who turned their backs on Jewish neighbors being hauled away by the Gestapo? Haven't Jews been persecuted enough that we need our children today to define them as wicked and mendacious? Do people here not realize that the same bigoted opinions in 1939 exacerbated the Holocaust? Is there no better way to teach our children about society than to make them into Nazi propagandists?

    April 15, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • Alias

      You totally and completely missed the point.
      The teacher was not promoting nazi ideas. The children were learning how evil can be justified. The same thing – evil thought being rationally supported – is still going on in the world today, and young people need to see it when it happens in stead of being taken in by it.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • cweinblatt

      I am a Holocaust researcher and published author. This is not a passing interest. It is close to my heart and has been the topic of my daily life as an author for the past ten years. I certainly did not "miss the point." In 1933 Europe, anti-Semitism existed in latent form. Despite the occasional pogrom (which my 103-year-old mother can still clearly recall), there were no massive genocides against Jews. But by 1939, Hitler had convinced the general population of Germany that it was a good idea to exterminate Jews. This wave of Jew-hatred swept across Europe like wildfire, pushed adroitly by expert German propagandists. Do you believe for a moment that the same could not occur today in Europe; or, if the American economy was in tatters, that it could not occur here? The match that lit the fire of European genocide was German propaganda. It gave people the excuse to publicly persecute Jews.

      How about turning the coin around. Let's say we should give kids an assignment to create propaganda against African Americans or Hispanics. How long would it take for one or two of those students to believe in the assignment for real? Or do you believe that young minds are not ameliorable?

      My undergraduate degree was in psychology and my father was a well-known psychiatrist. Know that it takes very little to persuade humans to hate someone who is different. Know that someone in that classroom harbored considerations of anti-Semitism. One people are discussing it openly, another student can be infected. Soon, the exercise that was designed to extinguish bigotry has reignited it.

      You do not teach children the dangers of prejudice by forcing them to become a bigot. You teach it with reason, logic, with witnesses and with compassion. You expose children to the terrifying pictures and tales of genocide, lest they might not recognize it with their progeny. Forcing students to become vessels of prejudice will only lead to someone becoming aroused by the lesson, not fearful of its consequence.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
  11. jda1

    I don't think that the teacher wanted to upset anyone but merely wanted the students to explore the thinking behind evil ideas. The students would have discovered for themselves how immoral the Nazi concepts were in perhaps a more powerful fashion than just reading about it.
    Were the class too young? I wonder. They are old enough to have children and mostly old enough to drive cars. Maybe they are old enough to think too. Seems reasonable.
    I feel sorry for the teacher who truly tried to do well but seems to have stepped into a mess. I hope the teacher continues to teach and is allowed to do so.

    April 15, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
    • emma

      Thank you for your intelligent reply. Many cannot see beyond the knee-jerk reaction of omg that's terrible but it is an exercise in trying to understandt he mind of those people. It is an important part of history to understand how this happened and a big part of it was propaganda and playing on people's fears and stereotypes

      April 15, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
  12. Dave

    Republicans naturally wouldn't like an assignment which exposes their political tactics and results in free-thinking, liberal-leaning adults.

    April 15, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  13. Shocked

    A persuasive writing assignment? Really?
    I can't imagine what must have been on the teacher's mind to come up with this as the topic. I'm quite certain there are many other topics that can be covered to teach the lessons of persuasive writing. History is replete with demagogues who were persuasive. Is that the lesson here? Perhaps the author of this article, supporting the argument that there should be an argument about "jews being evil" indicates some agreement to the point. That is racism at its fundamental root. However, I wonder if this author would have had the same reaction to an assignment to support the argument that "muslims are terrorists". Probably not. Both the author and the teacher need lessons in humanity.

    April 15, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • RB

      You are too hyperfocused on the subject matter and do not even understand the assignment. F for you.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  14. David M

    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?

    April 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • David M

      I hit the send button too soon. Anyway, are you saying this was the ONLY way or the BEST way to teach them about propoganda and the horrors of the holocaust. Sorry, but I beg to differ. Yes, I do think the teacher is a closet Nazi. You don't just get up one day and decide to give this assignment. This was planned and for a very specific purpose that has nothing to do with critical thinking. The teacher should be fired, not just removed from the classroom.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  15. David E.

    There are plenty of more creative and appropriate ways to illustrate how the Holocaust was a shameful and terrifying era in human history. What would you do if students undertaking such an assignment came to find validity in Nazi doctrine and anti-Semitic ideals and wanted to revive the ideals of the Third Reich? Would you merely state, "Oh, that's not the lesson you were supposed to learn"?

    April 15, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
    • Alias

      The point is that they made some valid arguements. Then they took it out of context and used it to justify immoral acts. The same stuff is going on today. Why shouldn't we teach our children about history in a real world context?

      April 15, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • chubby rain

      David, propaganda works on those that are isolated in some way from other viewpoints. For instance, North Korea where state-run media and censorship allow their governments to inundate their citizens with their message. If these HIGH SCHOOL students do not know that the Holocaust was a horrible thing before beginning this as-signment, their parents and teachers have utterly failed them. And from the article it seems like their were no students that were "too enthusiastic" about the as-signment. Quite the opposite.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Bruce S

      Really? If a writing assignment like this was to convince a student that antisemitism was a valid world view, then I would suggest that student was already pretty far gone.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  16. CS

    This is no doubt the result of religion.

    http://www.theverge.com/2013/4/15/4227736/two-explosions-at-boston-marathon-finish-line

    April 15, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  17. Juán Roberto

    To me, this seems like a perfectly reasonable assignment. It may seem...initially...to be politically and racially inappropriate, but educationally, it is designed for the students to confront a terrible part of history, to think beyond the box, as they say. Parts of life are unpleasant and having the students confront the horrors of life is a great idea. Having the students write about this part of world history will not turn them into Nazis, into believers in National Socialism, but will, instead, let them ponder historical fact, analyze it, think about it, and make historical judgements.

    April 15, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
    • cweinblatt

      How do you know that this assignment won't turn a student into a Neo-Nazi? Latent anti-Semitism in pre-WWII Europe exploded in popularity after Hitler's propagandists used the very same arguments in public. It turned millions of people in Europe into overt Jew-haters. Why wouldn't it happen here, especially if some of these students are lacking in appropriate ethical constructs?

      April 15, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      It is wonderful to see another person of latinity here to share the joys of the pleasures. Thank you for arriving.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • RB

      Racial? Jews are not their own race.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • Bruce S

      The idea of debating from a position one personally doesn't subscribe to is as standard a teaching technique as there is. I would see this as more of a tool to weaken the effects of propaganda in general – and antisemitism in particular. Does this mean ANY subject taught has the potential to proselytize and convert? Probably. But only for the convertible. I, for one, would love to be given the assignment to defend creationism. I doubt it would change my mind about evolution.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
    • rapierpoint

      cweinblatt – please don't try to use the argument "what if the student turns into x if they are taught that". It's a straw argument.

      You could use the exact same argument to say we shouldn't teach kids auto shop (they might turn into auto thieves), or computer skills (they might turn into computer hackers), or accounting/marketing (they might turn into one those nasty evil Wall Street types), or teach the reasons the South started the Civil War (they might come out in favor of slavery).

      If you use that argument, my question would be why send them to school at all?

      April 15, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  18. Alias

    Too many of the posters here are having a knee jerk reaction because of the word 'Nazi'.
    This was not a history lesson about the Jews or religion. It was about how propaganda and hate can be used to control the masses. These are things we should be teaching our children.

    April 15, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • teesoepke

      agreed. what most people don't realize is that a lot of the propaganda techniques developed by goebbels and the nazis are still used by wall street and the media to influence how you buy, what you buy, and who you vote for. anyone still think this was a bad assignment?

      April 15, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • Bruce S

      Sorry teesoepke, I accidentally hit "report abuse" and didn't mean to. I was actually just trying to agree!

      April 15, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  19. James

    I for one agree with the author, people should spend less time getting offended by everything that happens that somehow conflicts with there world full of sunshine and rainbows. assigning students an assignment like this doesn't turn them into Nazi's and make them hate Jews. It causes them to think. I know shocking people making other people actually think critically. However, your right students thinking would be bad they could just as easily write an article about Anne Frank, or Justin Bieber or something that has probably been assigned 1,000 times already. Why rock the boat?

    April 15, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
  20. Eli Cabelly

    Great assignment!

    I am a jew, and I understand that I must know my enemies if I hope to outwit them. Towards this end I read Mein Kampf, and found myself being persuaded by Hitler's insanity. However, I came to know his arguments, how he used them, and how to recognize them in current day propaganda.

    Never again.

    April 15, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      wow i read it to, and was completely disgusted,.. hate to say it buddy but your a self hating Jew. which is fine i would hate my self if i worshiped the god of hatred to.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Eli,

      "Never again"

      let's hope so.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      and no that was not anti Semitic i love Semites, just hate Yahweh/Allah/Jehovah, and any other names you all call Di-...almost used the explicit name.

      April 15, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • Rubkin

      Yeah well Sam your hate and opinion will buy you an ulcer.. Thankfully nobody worth a damn cares what you think.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
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