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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. Orville

    The assignment given to his/her students is provocative no doubt...and on the surface it does seem to be in appropriate. However, in the right hands and couched in certain ways this assignment could be a true learning experience....But, there is so much missing information for anyone to go beyond a knee-jerk reaction when trying to judge the value and worthiness of this assignment. IMO, before anyone can arrive at a constructive conclusion they should want to know at least the following: 1) what were the goals and objectives of the lesson. I2) how will the teacher connect the lesson to today making it relevant for his/her students? 3) what was the introduction to this lesson? 4) What kind of dialogue took place as a part of the introduction to this assignment?; 4) How was the teacher planning to help his/her students process the information learned? 5) How was he/she going to conclude the unit/lesson? 6) What was going to be used as an assessment tool to determine if the goals and objectives of the lesson were met? 7) What are the students supposed to do with this new information? In other words,how were the students to act on the new information?..this is only just the beginning of an analysis

    I doubt if this lesson was a smart decision by the teacher for many reasons. First, teachers are always in a hurry and often times only touch on the superficial elements of a lesson. This in large part is due to the magnitude of their job and the state curricular requirements that so much material be addressed each academic year. So I doubt that there would be sufficient time allocated for this topic. Second, there are only a handful of teachers who are truly capable of having a dialogue that helps students process correctly the tangental issues related to such a complicated and emotionally charged topic. And third, It is the rare teacher who is flexible enough in their planning to be willing and able to adjust the duration of a lesson which allows more time to gain a better understanding. ...So much information is missing!

    April 15, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
    • Hamsa

      Wow...way to ramble on aimlessly. Wrong is wrong,simple as that.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • Elroy

      Seems that "Hamsa" took one too many "simple" pills today.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
  2. Charlie White

    I taught history for 55 years, and loved every minute of that long time. My assignments were frequently to write arguments justifying and/or attacking historical actions. Students usually did realize the underpinnings of both outrageously bad and obviously beneficial actions. History is a great teacher. No lesson is more important than the realization that humans have, numerous times, felt that their evil actions were right, proper, and in accord with their religious precepts..

    April 15, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • Larry

      Yes, and the people who perhaps oppose this are those who promote and value black and whit thinking the most. They cast themselves, of course, in the role of "white" and all who oppose, or criticize their actions as being in the "black". It's a very immature and even dangerous way of looking at the world precisely because it's the way Hitler trained the German people to see it.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
  3. Larry

    If this were a drama class, and the teacher were asking students to act like Nazis, would there be the same level of objection, I wonder?

    April 15, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • Hamsa

      Forum is everything, and if you do not understand that, then you should be ashamed. Really ashamed...

      April 15, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • Larry

      What is the difference between pretending to be a Nazi through acting and pretending to be a Nazi through writing? Wouldn't the lines that an actor delivers be just as provocative?

      April 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
    • Chuckles

      @Larry

      Like Hamsa pointed out, Forum is everything. First and foremost, acting out a part, saying lines written for you could be tough, however it all depends on what the play is about, who's it for and what's the goal. If kids were performing a Schindlers List play for example, the obviously larger lesson of the story makes the uncomfortable people acting out the Nazi's a tool to understand what the moral is about.

      This particular assignment isn't starting a discussion, it's not lending itself to be a forum to discuss the merits of Nazi germany and the propaganda that made a random german citizen become a nazi, it's asking the student to pretend to be a nazi and write an essay that will undoubtably be very anti-semitic all for the sake of an A and not delve deeper. That's why this assignment was in poor taste and that's why there's a ado going on. Using critical thinking and discussing why Naziism flourished in 1930's Germany isn't the problem, it's how the assignment itself was presented.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  4. theorycraft

    Well first off youre a college professor and these were high school kids, in a mandatory class, within a set curriculum. Kids are impressionable....

    April 15, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • Larry

      That has not stopped creationists from interfering with set high school curricula, has it?

      April 15, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • Brian

      And for kids who do not go onto college - when are they to learn? Remember, we can send 18-year-olds to war to kill and be killed - by your judgment, they are still kids, but they are still going.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
  5. Ted

    To write that assignment, the students had to evoke extreme hate – and there is nothing wrong with that?

    April 15, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      No. They simply had to consider the German thought process behind their justification of the holocaust. It's a lesson, not a training exercise. Calm down.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • Brian

      No they didn't. All they had to do was think.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
  6. Lexagon

    "But instead of grappling with these questions, my students almost universally tried to side-step them."

    That would indicate that this method of teaching DIDN'T WORK. Dolt.

    April 15, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      Idiots tend to side-step things they don't understand.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • e30kid

      "Tried."

      Dolt.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  7. Carl

    The guy that wrote this article is an idiot and the teacher should be fired and i can't blame any of the students for not doing it. Just like the teacher in PA should be fired for belittling the girl that wore a Romney shirt to school. I don't belong to any party but teachers that do that to kids and attempt to indoctrinate them. they all should be fired . They are there to teach not indoctrinate

    April 15, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • Surthurfurd

      I am a teacher. My job is to promote critical thinking, not enforce my political views on people. Sadly here in the US, we refuse to allow the teaching of real science, civics, and history to avoid upsetting one group or another.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • Elroy

      What's real science there, surthurfurd?

      April 15, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • Al

      Carl needs to go back to school.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Surthurfurd

      Real science is a process for seeking to identify degrees of possibility based on and organized and testable means. It is not the definition of gravity or an explanation of what causes gravity. It is the process by which we seek to understand gravity, the formation of life, the structure of the universe, etc....

      April 15, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • Roscoe Chait

      The problem is that this assignment is for college age students, not high school students. High school students are not ready for the depth of critical thinking this assignment requires. If I were teaching the course, if I truly wanted to show the power of propaganda, I would have assigned half the class to promoting the Nazi point of view, and the other half to challenging it.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • Tong Ray

      Woosh.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • PaulH

      Surthurfurd
      "Real science is a process for seeking to identify degrees of possibility based on and organized and testable means. It is not the definition of gravity or an explanation of what causes gravity. It is the process by which we seek to understand gravity, the formation of life, the structure of the universe, etc...."

      I think you're talking about philosophy, religion or even poetry here, but not actual science.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
  8. vidas

    We have freedom of expression. Let's use it wisely, not trying to promote ourselves.

    April 15, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  9. Surthurfurd

    Shall we now have an assignment that has students promote that the Devil has more concern about human welfare than God and God is the real enemy of humanity? Or would that be offensive?

    April 15, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
    • Elroy

      So you're going from Hitler to the Devil and God? Don't stop there – why not Darth Vader and Mary Poppins.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      Neither exist. It is equal to studying Greek Mythology.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
    • Surthurfurd

      Darth Vader happens to be imaginary and everyone agrees with it. Well I thought that until now.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
    • T

      The difference is that Nazis were real and caused millions of real deaths. God and the Devil are fictional characters used to scare the unintelligent.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • Bob

      OK, class here is your assignment. I am a plantation owner in the Antebellum South in 1840. Justify with reasons, slavery in 42 ways.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • Akira

      Surthurfurd, if you are a teacher, you know the separtion of church and state. God and the Devil cannot be taught in public school.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
  10. Patiat

    In order to argue against an opponent, you have to understand the underpinnings of his thinking and the structure of his arguments. One way of doing it is to try to argue from that side's point of view. It's a tried and true practice strategy for debaters, as it requires true critical thinking as opposed to just unthinkingly believing people like this Greenfield guy just because he says things like "quite obviously" and "clearly."

    April 15, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
    • Donna

      Thing is, college often requires writing like this. It allows for the person to LEARN and EDUCATE themselves on the other side, regardless of what that otherside is. Some topics are shushed because of what they are, and in reality that is a major dis-service to society as a whole.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  11. Joe

    Students need to learn that Jews have big noses. Sounds like a great assignment.

    April 15, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
  12. kenhbradshaw

    Not everything that can be done, should be done. Common sense, and kindness and compassion, should rule our judgement. There was so much horror, pain and suffering associated with the Holocaust, that this was not a good use of conflict to teach a lesson. That fact that it was effective does not excuse it.

    April 15, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
  13. Carla

    "Persuasive writing" assignment. Slavery & the Holocaust are two of history's most abhorrent behaviors. Teaching critical thinking, in such a manner (safe) that these young adults have probably never given a great deal of thought – I think it's a tremendous assignment. In no way did I see it as disrespectful of Jewish people or their history.
    BTW – although Mr. Prothero does indicate in the article he is a Christian, his faith, whether or not he feels Jesus dies for his sins or even arguments over religion are not pertinent to this article. Nothing about this assignment was about religion – just religious prosecution and how good (yet often weak) people along with bad were persuaded to follow.

    April 15, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
    • Patiat

      Of course it's not disrespectful. It's the Greenfield guy who disrespects everyone else by treating them like children.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • Hamsa

      "Jews are evil" is NOT offensive to Jews? What kind of Bizzaro world are you living in??? So telling students to write "Why Blacks are evil," wouldn't be offensive to blacks? Or "women are evil" isn't offensive to women? I think you must have skipped your daily dose.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • Hamsa

      Good people CANNOT be persuaded to follow evil...how incredibly silly. It makes me wonder what you are justifying,to lie to yourself this way ("Oh woe is me, I am weak, I cannot help my evil"). Such incredible denial.WOW.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
    • Elroy

      OK, now I'm quite certain Hamsa must have had a bit bowl of stupid for lunch.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
    • Julie

      Actually, I understand your first point Hamsa, but you are saying students are incapable of using those uncharacteristic positions to learn something from the exercise?

      April 15, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
  14. coyoteliberty

    Wow. Really? A liberal professor of religion who regularly attacks religious values rising up to defend a common core derived curriculum assignment.

    Go figure.

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

      What an utterly dumb response

      April 15, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  15. james

    Good article.

    April 15, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • Hamsa

      Ridiculous article.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
    • Elroy

      Stupid Hamsta.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
  16. 1nd3p3nd3nt

    i'm all for critical thought and knowing your enemy, but i don't know if it's ever a good idea to assign people to justify genocide for any people.

    at least he didn't have them dress up and bring food for 'be a nazi day'

    April 15, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
    • what1ever

      Until you understand how people justify genocide to themselves, you will never understand it.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • ledfrog

      The assignment wasn't meant to create the justification for genocide, but to show how difficult trying to make the justification would be. To "imagine" what it would have been like to change your current thought process and morph it into a radically different process that ended up killing millions of Jews is what the assignment was about. In one way, he succeeded. The student that felt horrible for turning it in was feeling the correct emotions. I think others are missing the point.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
    • HenryB

      If you think that the assignment was to justify genocide then you are just a plain dumb American, of which we have quite a few.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  17. 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 5:55 pm |
    • .

      Get your nasty nose out of that book and stop trying to pretend that the Holocaust didn't happen by people JUST LIKE YOU lighting the ovens.
      Communist bitch.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
    • Villages have idiots

      The Belief Blog has "lol??" and "Salero21".

      April 15, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • lol??

      !!!!!!!!!!!!TILT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      April 15, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • Akira

      Villages have idiots rests his case.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  18. Steve

    Agreed. Though, I think this should have been assigned at a college level.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
  19. Archaia

    I thought the idea for the assignment was awesome. When I was in 7th grade, my history teacher addressed the treatment of slaves in the early American period by forcing the whole class to sit on the floor, in a tiny marked off space, for the entire period. It was to give us an example of how crowded the slave ships were. Was it awkward? Absolutely. Did I enjoy it? Nope. But I learned from it.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • Rodrigo El Obviouso Del Los Santos Y Sanitarios

      Not only that, but you remembered it. It left a long lasting impression.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • JamesS

      Were you required to defend the concept of slavery, and argue for the idea that people can be chattel? Doesn't sound like it.

      You performed an experiment to show how crowded the conditions were, that's all. A big difference from this assignment.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
    • Hamsa

      What you are talking about is the COMPLETE OPPOSITE of this scenario. In your assignment,you realized what is was like to be a slave. The equivalent would be this teacher getting students to feel like jews in camps...how awful it was. But that IS NOT WHAT THIS IS. You are not being taught to feel like jews(slaves in your case), but to sympathize with the Nazi's who put them there.Did your teacher make you be a slave master, and justify slavery and whipping and killing slaves?

      April 15, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
    • Elroy

      Hamsta – go back to 4th grade – do not pass go, don't collect any milk and cookies until you come back through the right way this time.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
    • Julie

      Elroy – Hamsa is correct that Archaia didn't actually make the same exercise – quite the opposite. Apparently, Hamsa thinks nothing can be learned from such exercise – I don't think I agree with that.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
  20. Cogs

    I understand the context of the "assignment" and the authors argument. But it seems to have been done in very poor taste. You get what you get.

    April 15, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • .

      Crappier teachers wouldn't have even tried. And they outnumber the good ones. By far.

      April 15, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
    • Dippy's sub

      No, they don't.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • what1ever

      There is nothing about a discussion regarding the holocaust that is going to be "in good taste."

      April 15, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
    • .

      Yes, they do.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
    • HenryB

      I don't think it was in poor taste. Rather, it was ill conceived. The right assignment with a topic that will cause outrage in dumb people.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
    • Dippy's sub

      No, they don't. Back it up or shove it up your ass.

      April 15, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
    • .

      Check the test scores of the crappy teacher's classes, and shove it up your own ass. Playing grammar Nazi here doesn't qualify you to do anything else except to fufill the role of grammar troll you've carved out for yourself. Dipshit.
      Teach the test, be quiet, fail!

      April 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
    • Dippy's sub

      You are a moron. Using a dot for your screen name is apropos-I suspect that's about the size of your brain.

      You think test scores are a measure of a teacher's skills, all by themselves? Only an ass would believe that. Test scores are affected by dozens of factors. So is student achievement. Do you take the socio-economic makeup of the class into account? The attendance records of the students? No?

      I didn't think so.

      I've always know you were an idiot. Now there's evidence.

      April 16, 2013 at 8:46 am |
    • This isn't an argument

      Dipsh!t dot, you claimed that "crappy teachers outnumber good ones."

      You then used the test scores of "crappy teacher's classes" as your proof.

      If you don't grasp the disconnect here, don't ever teach anyone anything. You are the crappy one.

      April 16, 2013 at 8:49 am |
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