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. e

    So if the assignment was, describe how whites are evil. Describe how Protestants are evil. Describe how Catholics are evil. Describe how Irish are all dirty drunks. Describe how Italians are all hotblodded mafia assassins... you would be fine with that??

    April 15, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      Something tells me you don't understand the concept of the project.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
    • Chutzpah

      I agree... you obviously don't get it.

      Maybe you would understand the situation better if you'd had a teacher that assigned such a critical thinking assignment when you were in high school, eh?

      April 15, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
    • e

      I understand it perfectly, you are ignoring what makes it offensive. Millions of people can understand the horrors of the holocaust and can read the actual words of the Nazis without having to write new versions of hateful racism, words that might apply personally to many of the students and their friends and family.

      There is nothing wrong with asking kids to try to see another point of view, this can be done in 1000 ways that are NOT offensive. Most of those do not include writing racist stereotypes that many still believe and that were used to justify mass murder.

      Why not have the students DEBUNK the nazi lies? Why not from the point of view of someone willing to risk their lives to SAVE people from those beliefs?

      April 15, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
    • e

      And if you like the assignment so much, then why don't you want the same assignment turned around?

      Explain why no one should hire the Irish
      Explain why Poles are too stupid to become citizens.
      Explain how Italians are stealing our jobs and spreading disease.

      After all, these were real beliefs that harmed many people, writing about it would just be making history real for the students wouldn't it?

      April 15, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
  2. Brad

    As Rage Against the Machine sez: Know your enemy. Power to the people who thrown down knowledge.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
  3. erica

    It's illogical to compare university students who willingly picked Nazi Theology classes to HS students. It is very important to be imaginative when teaching, but why not the converse? Allow students to write a dissenting opinion on why Jews are not evil, with the awareness that in Nazi Germany they would have been executed for expressing themselves.
    To the writer- this article almost appears to be written for it's shock value rather than a logically built argument. The fact that you are "not a Nazi" is a red herring and irrelevant. Nazi theology is alive and well in the Middle East as well as other places and perhaps it would be truly eye-opening to students to learn the association of how history still effects the present. There is certainly better ways to have discussions and creatively impact children's learning without going this route.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • what1ever

      There is no point in writing why NAZI theology is evil. How hard is it to formulate an argument about how murdering millions of people for no reason is wrong? I guess it would improve your overall writing skills, but that's about it.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
  4. Glenda

    "Think for yourself" is not popular nowadays. Because its either think in the same line as everyone else or go die. I bet the teacher was not done with the assignment, he/she might have a follow up assignment such as the perspective of the Jews, the perspective of a bystander.
    Of course you are uncomfortable my dear student, its the Holocaust! If that does not make you uncomfortable, then we need to question the whole thing starting with you!

    April 15, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
    • lol??

      Of course you realize the students are desensitized with the current socie holocaust, the eviction of the children from their womb rooms.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • e

      There are 1000 ways you can teach children to think about other points of view that do not involve them writing racist manifestos

      April 15, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • lol?? is a dope

      Case closed.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
    • .

      Stupid, stupid lol?? Of course, it's perfectly all right to kill millions after they're born. It's the Christian way.
      Precisely why such a lesson should be learned: to have another generation of good goose-stepping Christians to muzzel rights. Sig Heil!

      April 15, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
  5. wahoo1969

    There was a made for TV film called "The Wave" from 1981, we watched when I was in middle school back in 1981 and was pretty amazing and scary at the same time how people can become sheeple. I know the film is dated, but the message is pretty clear; it's a good watch if you've never seen it.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • Goaty McCheese

      If they made "The Wave" today, it would be 15 minutes long because the teacher would get disciplined and the students would remain ignorant.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • wahoo1969

      Prob true Goaty...

      April 15, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
  6. what1ever

    This teacher is brilliant. I'd take it further though. I'd have the students write a letter posing as a brain washed neo-con from 2003 to George W. Bush talking about how they support his move to invade Iraq and kill thousands of people to remove the non-existent WMDs.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Bart Hawkins

      While your sorities is ludicrous, such an assignment would ALSO be credible.

      Lack of popularity does not imply "wrong."

      April 15, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • lol??

      The whole country lined up like gud little socies.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
    • what1ever

      Would that not be the next logical step, show exactly how something like that could happen here, in modern times?

      April 15, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
    • .

      Lol??: the stupidest Holocaust denier here.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • lol?? is a dope

      'Nuff said.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
  7. Bart Hawkins

    I cannot believe the school administration is so horridly, horridly stupid! The only way ANYONE can understand anti-Semitic (or for that matter, anti-anybody) beliefs is in fact to walk in the country – for a while – of those who held them!

    I recall, in high school, being asked to play the role of Southern gentlemen in a debate – Slavery is a Good Thing, effectively – and of course dressed the part, white suit, string tie, the whole bit. No one, NO ONE, believed then or believes now that I actually hold those beliefs.

    It was in fact a wonderful object lesson!

    I note many assignments my son brings home surrounding slavery is bad, white people are evil, white people owe reparations to slaves, all of which (by the standard pointed out in the article) are equally obnoxious and ludicrous.

    Oh. By the way. My wife practices the Jewish faith.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
  8. hcbresson

    Sounds like an exercise in looking at things from different perspectives. Any debate class would have exercises like this, and if the teacher wanted to push the boundaries by having the students argue FOR something that is universally hated or disagreed with, I think thats a challenge that the teacher thought her students could handle. I think its a sign of our times, where things go instantly "viral" and to be PC is the upmost concern, that this kind of attention is brought to this.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
  9. lol??

    I bet americult's socies wish they could have CONTROLLED Abraham's marriage so history would be different.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • midwest rail

      You wouldn't recognize a socialist if they slapped you. Good grief, you are a blithering idiot.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
    • lol??

      rfgg htrhtr t rt hwt twhwtr ?

      April 15, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
  10. Sue Perlative

    Mr Prothero professes to be a Christian. Imagining reasons that might be used to justify engaging in un-Christian behavior does not strike me as constructive, but rather, as a potentially harmul and dangerous. (The devil himself can come up with "reasons" for doing evil. Why make his arguments for him?) I wonder what Mr Prothero would think about an assignment to students to come up with reasons to justify the killing and persecution of Christians. Even if it did not lead to murder of anyone, it could very well lead to bullying and taunts by immature youth, and worse behavior by ignorant adults. I've known several Jews who had to put up with such treatment when they were youngsters. We would not allow an assignment to come up with reasons to "justify" racist behavior, nor should we allow an assignment to "justify" murderous bigotry.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • .

      We probably should prevent anyone from reading the OT then, as it's filled with justifying racist behavior and justifying bigoted behavior and killing large amounts of people. Wouldn't want to offend them.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Goaty McCheese

      When we teach children to reject uncomfortable ideas without confronting and understanding them, we teach children not to think.

      This column is right on target. Yes, the Holocaust is evil and painful. That's precisely why we need to understand it intimately – so that we can recognize and govern in ourselves the base human impulses that generate such evils.

      Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
    • Sue Perlative

      A Wikipedia article on Prothero says "Prothero describes himself as 'religiously confused,'" citing two sources: "May 2010 interview on CSpan's BookTV, and Prothero, Stephen (2010). God is Not One. New York: HarperOne. p. 23."

      April 15, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
    • .

      So what? What does that have to do with anything, Chad?

      April 15, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
  11. Scotterius

    Some of the comments here are great illustrations showing that modern propaganda is not recognized and why critical thinking should be stressed in schools. The US public could really use some practice in understanding and even empathizing with radically different view points, like the Nazis. After all, many real people once felt this way. Real people who thought they were moral. I think presented slightly different this could have been the challenging project the teacher wanted.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
  12. Al

    Author Stephen – applying your logic, give your students an assignment defending the proposition that it's ok to blow up Americans in the Twin Towers and at the Boston Marathon. As the Apostle Paul said, "All things are lawful but not all things are expedient." The assignment may be defensible but it certainly isn't wise.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
    • erica

      spot on

      April 15, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
    • .

      Why not? Are you saying that the students would suddenly become anti-Muslim? Thanks to forward thinkers like you, PLENTY of people here already ARE, and probably employed many of the propaganda techniques used in Nazi Germany to get rational people to think irrationally.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Jesse

      Such an exercise about 9/11 would also be very useful. How can we understand why some people around the world hate us, and are willing to go to such great lengths to harm us, if we cannot put ourselves in their shoes? Ignoring viewpoints we ourselves see as evil, ignorant, or even simply wrong, is a surefire way to either never learn from our own mistakes, or understand the repercussions of such.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
  13. Kat Trabert

    I think you're completely on-target with this idea...these kids learn what parents teach them if they are not exposed to new ideas outside their comfort zone! Well said!

    April 15, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
  14. ZippityDooDah

    That's right American teachers, just teach to the test and everything will be just fine.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
  15. Evelyn

    The next assignment: ask your black students to write "Why Slavery is Good" from the Confederate point of view. These subjects are simply too painful for the people they affected the most to discuss, debate, or use for "critical thinking" exercises. It is hard to understand tor those who view these subjects from a historical perspective and not from the perspective of those of us who have murdered family members and living family members who still carry tattoos on their arms.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • megatalldave

      Some students had almost exactly that topic in my African-American history class in college. They had to play the part of a slave owner and speak from that perspective.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      Why would that be painful to write about? No one alive today in this country experienced that.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
    • Scotterius

      There are view points out there that threaten all of our fragile egos. We are never as great or special as we think we are 🙂 Part of critical thinking is taking things you disagree with and challenging yourself to really understand your opposition. It is always a painful and turbulent process. Critical thinking and examining criticism are useful for every successful person.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
    • JC

      When I was in high school (the 80s) we had a series of debates in a social studies class. While we were studying the mid-19th century, leading up the emancipation proclamation, one of them was about slavery. One side defending the practice and the other side explaining why it should be illegal. I was on the pro-slavery side. We trounced them. Why? Because every response they had could be reworded as, "It just should be." The thing is, in our preparation we thought of counter arguments to every point we made. If they had done the same, they'd have won handily. Without thinking about why someone would have thought slavery was ok, they couldn't crystallize their ideas on why it wasn't... even though they were clearly right.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
  16. Mohamiss Shaffique-Kaddir

    Muslims love Nazi's .

    April 15, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
  17. 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 5:07 pm |
  18. brian

    "When I was an assistant professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I used to teach Nazi theology. "

    That's just it, you were teaching in college. Tenth grade is not college.

    "First, I wanted my students to realize that smart Christians with doctoral degrees supported the Holocaust."

    You take yourself too seriously. Most students already know this. Some "smart" people lack intellect. Many "theologians" fall into this category.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      "You take yourself too seriously. Most students already know this

      Please count the dozens (hundreds?) of Christian apologist deniers who ignore the presence and influence of Christianity as motivation for the Germans of the Third Reich.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
    • .

      Brian, have you read the number of (presumably) adult comments here denying Hitler was even a Christian? Let alone the rest of the Reich?

      April 15, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  19. Becky

    So if the assignment would have been assigned the same but the topic was Vietnam and making an argument for Ho Chi Minh, that is okay...Just as long as we don't talk about the Holocaust...don't talk about anything uncomfortable when it has to do with Jews! Teach our kids to think!! God Forbid we teach them to think outside the politically correct box we are are living in! How will they know not to allow a repeat if we do not "make them a little uncomfortable"?

    April 15, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  20. Mohamiss Shaffique-Kaddir

    The Nazi party had a good relationship with the Nazi regime in Germany , Islam and Nazi had same disdain for Jews , and there was even an Islamist cadre in the German foreign service .

    April 15, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
    • wahoo1969

      The Baath Party would model itself on Nazism and is alive and well in the Middle East today...

      April 15, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
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