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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. davessworks

    I'm in agreement with the author on this. It's about education. This is a very teachable opportunity.

    April 15, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
  2. Tim in Ok

    PC is alive and well in New York. I think that it was a great assignment and shows how rational people an be led down the wrong path. Give that teacher a raise.

    April 15, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • Carrie

      I agree. I was just trying to think of a way to challenge my students in a similar manner, but with a safer subject.

      April 15, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  3. Babs

    There has been enough written about Hitler and the Nazi's. All you need to do is pick up a book or watch films on the History channel. You do not need to feel like a Nazi. That is like trying to feel like the devil.

    April 15, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • Scott K

      Yes, I am sure all high school student spend hour watching nothing but the History Channel, so they all have a great understanding of the subject of Nazi's and the effectiveness of propaganda.

      April 15, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
  4. Doug in Florida

    Being a individual of Jewish descent with several family members who were tortured and/or killed by the Nazi's, I have to say I am appalled by both the teacher by assigning this task and the author of this piece by agreeing with the assignment. Think about it from a Jewish person's point of view. What if my son or daughter was in this class? My child would be asked to write an essay depicting their own relatives of being evil and responsible for their own torture and deaths rather than by the hands of anti-sematic tyrants who had them killed for no other reason than due to their faith. What if your grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, mother, or father had been killed and your child was asked to write an essay stating that it was due to them being evil, that it was their fault? Would this teacher be giving this assignment if the teacher had a relative who was killed by the Nazi's? If he had a relative killed by the Nazi's, would Mr. Prothero be agreeing?

    April 15, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • A Rational Person

      I too am Of Jewish descent and have had numerous family members killed in the Holocaust. And I think this assignment was FANTASTIC. What better way to learn how to debate and write a persuasive argument than to attempt to argue in favor of something reprehensible? To learn how someone that could be convinced of such perverse thoughts that would otherwise never have done so is extraordinary. I cannot see why anyone would be offended by the assignment. On the contrary – to show how good people can be convinced to do horrible things shows just how devious the Holocaust was.

      April 15, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  5. Pablo

    Next we have an assignment to defend a mass school shooting of innocent children. Your assignment is to justify such an event.

    April 15, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
    • Jeb

      You could make a similar exercise of it. I think Lanza was a Christian, so that part fits.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • Hamsa

      I'm going to steal that...very nice 😉

      April 15, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  6. Veritas

    How about an assignment to justify the wholesale extermination of perverse professors at Boston and other universities? I'm a twice-retired university professor who assigned many students more creative and productive writing than to justify the holocaust. How about justifying Stalin's elimination of the educated class in the '20's and '30's? Hitler was a piker. He was responsible for only about half as many deaths as Stalin, who was instrumental in over 40 million deaths ... excluding WWII casualties. And that would be an equally sterile and destructive assignment. You communist/socialist-leaning pretenders to education, are a stain on all of humanity.

    April 15, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  7. Sue Perlative

    St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris was an Orthodox Christian saint who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and died by taking the place of a Jew who was going to be gassed. I think St Maria would not agree with Mr Prothero's approach, which could lead to bullying, bigotry, and worse. Nothing in the New Testament supports hatred of Jews, much less killing of Jews. Christ said, "Blessed are the peacemakers ..." "Love your neighbor ..." St Paul in Romans 9-11 makes clear that Jews are to be loved. What kind of a Christian are you, Mr Prothero? I am an Orthodox Christian.

    April 15, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
    • JWH

      You missed the entire point of the article. In reading comprehension, you get an: F.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
  8. dwt

    I'm a teacher and frequently assign students to argue a point opposite from their own belief, sometimes in teams, debate style. As John Stuart Mill put it long ago, we cannot even really know the strength of our own arguments and beliefs until we test them against robust rather than straw-man versions of the arguments against us.

    April 15, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • Hamsa

      PLEASE...quit your job. You would have to be a PUBLIC school teacher, not a REAL teacher.

      April 15, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
  9. mercfan

    Seems like a good Sociology experiment. What better way to teach the kids how easy it was for the Government to get the general public behind the Nazi Party. I guess if you remove the term Nazi Party and replaced it with Purple Party, they wouldn't have any problem with the assignment. When you look at it that way, it seems very silly. Mel Brooks makes fun of the Nazis all the time – but he can get away with it because he's Jewish. If the teacher was Jewish, would the community have asked for his resignation?

    April 15, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  10. Cliff Dwellings

    This assignment seems a bit much for high school students to me. Imagine if students, particularly black students, were asked to justify slavery in the US.

    April 15, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
  11. Clmb

    wouldn't the reverse be harder...having students write to Nazis that Jews are NOT evil??

    April 15, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
  12. Question to you

    Prothero, would you have encouraged this assignment with so much gusto were you a Jew? I think not!

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

      I am Jewish and I agree with Dr. Prothero's excellent commentary.

      When we forget the lesson, we become doomed to repeat it.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
    • Question for you

      That was a question for Prothero, not for you.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
  13. pbernasc

    Kevin in NY ... think Cheney is idea that torture is justified .. that's nazism .. we all know it and yet the guy keeps going for it

    April 15, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
    • Kevin in NY

      First let me say I don't believe in torture either. with that said how much more off base can you be. You are comparing apples and oranges. the Jewish people didn't go and take down buildings with over 3,000 Germans in it. Cheney didn't systematically round up about 6 million Muslims and either torture them, do experiments on them and then kill them

      April 15, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
      • pbernasc

        of course not , that would be genocide. The point is .. the idlot is going around telling everyone, torture is justified. It puts himself at the same level of the Nazis .. where the end justifies the means ... in that sense, he has denied all what America is supposed to be.
        Unless of course, he is nothing but the confirmation of past American abuses (remember, systematical uprooting of native Americans ?, or 50 millions deported salves half of which died along the trip?)

        The fact that he has not been shut up for good by its own party members, begs the question, "what does rally American stand for ?" cause listening to Cheney it's about killing someone else, with no regards how and why it's done, just do it as long as they are not Americans, you can do anything you want.
        That's Nazism

        April 16, 2013 at 3:49 am |
  14. David

    As ans ex-high school teacher, I thought the assignment was a good teaching tool. One thing that the revisionists (those that want to rewrite history so the parts they disagree with are excluded) seem to be forgetting, and this is across the board, be it Nazi Germany or slavery/Civil War, is that if we erase the ideas and people associated with terrible actions, how will future generations recognize the signs of those those actions starting again so that they can be prevented?

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

      WOW...it is clear why you are an EX-high school teacher. Oh, and I want fries with that...

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

      Why do you say that, Hamsa? What's wrong with David's response?

      April 15, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • JWH

      Hamsa won't reply because he/she simply jumps on the politically correct emotional victim mentality bandwagon – just like the Superintendent and the others named in this article. Critical thinking in the U.S. is dead – killed by the thin-skinned idiots on all sides who don't think but simply react.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  15. RKinCA

    I agree that this was a great assignment. Education is not supposed to make students comfortable. Socrates knew that, and willingly died for it. The teacher possibly could have framed the assignment a little differently, as Prothero ssuggests - but then, did the Nazis? I applaud Prothero for his offer at the end of the article. This unnamed instructor knows something about education that many on this comment board do not. If education does not make you uncomfortable, and questioning of your beliefs, it's not worth anything. If it only reinforces, who needs it? We've already got all that stuff. Last month, by the way, a schoold district (I believe it was) in Texas banned courses in critical thinking. "Signs of the Times," as Carlyle wrote. And Tom Lehrer: "The land of the boll weevil/ Where the laws are mediaeval . . . "

    April 15, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  16. Steve in NY

    Not surprised by this assignment as it goes along with the new, more rigorous core curriculum that has been introduced. Having to put yourself in an uncomfortable position and take a stand to support it is a very difficult task and requires higher level thinking, which teachers are trying to foster. Nothing I've read said that the teacher supported this thinking, in fact I can understand how he came up with it and would have thought that it would have been a challenging assignment for his students. He is putting his training into practice and those thinking this is some kind of an attack are way off base.

    April 15, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  17. pbernasc

    it's sure effective way to teach what's right and what wrong, by making the students think. I probably would have formulates the assignment in a bit more subtle way, but the idea of putting the student in the perspective of the other side is a very powerful teaching method that will teach them not to become complacent in the belief that we are right and they are wrong, which is what divides this country.
    Of course, exactly because we are already so stupid and only black and white thinker .. we go after the teacher, lose the opportunity to teach judgment to our kids and indeed put down the foundation of the demise of this country

    IN other words, it's already too late ..

    April 15, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
  18. Elroy

    Speaking of genocide, sounds like Ronnie Raygun, if alive, should be on trial in this case as well:

    http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/11/world/americas/guatemala-rios-montt-trial/index.html?hpt=wo_t5

    April 15, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
  19. Kevin in NY

    Wow, as I read this article I couldn't help but wonder how bigoted an/or blind this author must be. A lot of the propaganda and stereotypes used by the Nazis are still alive and around today. People use these things out of context for their own purposes, why perpetuate the stereotype. All you need to do is read the newspaper, There's Mel Gibson spotting off about the Jews owning Hollywood and all the banks. You have Charlie Sheen going off about the same thing. People would use this for propaganda to show how bad the Jews are. Nobody needs to do an assignment like this to show the Nazis were bad people, all they need to do is look at the pictures of the concentration camps and of the cloths lying in piles. It's all racist and has no place in school, teachers should teach and let students learn.

    April 15, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • tabbi

      your comment completely proved the authors point.... he is teaching them to learn to think! yes its a controversial subject, and HS students are about to become adults, i hope they learn how to think critically of the world around them

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

      If you don't understand your enemy (they're just "bad" – lol) you have put yourself at a disadvantage. How many times do we have to go back to the same well to learn that lesson? Worse, if you can't understand how otherwise decent Christian people could have not just acquiesced but supported such a monstrous regime, how will you recognize the same thing is happening to you? Having otherwise fat and happy teenagers feeling uncomfortable and shocked out of their comfort zone is not something to be discouraged.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
    • Kevin in NY

      We will never know, because the teacher wasn't allowed to finish, but what if once the teacher was done he used everything to try and show his class that the Nazis were right. Yes, learning shouldn't be easy. Nothing worth having or doing is always easy, but there are many other ways to show how propaganda works and what it's effects are. There are always at least two sides to every argument, but something like this should not have come up.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • JWH

      Kevin,

      You come across as highly deficient in your critical thinking skills. It is easy to call people evil and bad etc. Especially in hindsight. How do you feel about Muslims? "Something bad again" is happening all over – look at Guantanamo Bay (concentration camp). Look at the defense act Obama recently signed that allows detention of American citizens with no due process; or the permission given by government to government to assassinate American citizens without due process. I cannot stand Cheney, who is evil to the core, but if someone told me to "get in his brain" and try to justify his views on torture, invasion of foreign states for oil and money even if it means killing millions etc. THAT would definitely challenge me and I doubt the person asking me to write it would somehow be able to convert me with an essay. Get real – the point was for the students to feel terrible and uneasy – they and too many adults just want the "American Way" – to be brainless and comfortable and for "all the bad stuff to go away." We are becoming an Idiocracy.

      April 15, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
    • johnnykazoo

      You're a moron if you don't think Hollywood is Jewish.

      An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood is a book written by Neal Gabler (who is Jewish), and it won the 1989 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for history. Read it.

      April 15, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @Kevin

      From what I read, the point isn't to show how evil the Nazi's were, it's to show what propaganda can really do to a group. Do you think that all the Nazi's just innately hated the Jews? Of course not. But they were under an authoritarian government, and were fed lies to make them feel better, give someone to blame for all their problems, and allowed them to feel oppressed, and righteous in doing what they did. Reminds me of a few other things in the world right now.

      April 15, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
  20. Porthos

    Everyone of you that posts that this teacher is an idiot and should be fired must be so ignorant of everything outside of your little bubble. Okay the subject matter is a little unnerving but, that is what the teacher is trying to accomplish. He or she was trying to get the student to think on the other side, to try and think what were the Nazis were thinking when they decided Jews were the answer to the world's problems. Instead everyone has learned that the Germany of WWII was just filled with monsters that should be forgotten. Well if you forget them you have just doomed us to repeat those same offenses.

    April 15, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • Kevin in NY

      Why do they need to think what the Nazis were thinking when they said the Jews were evil. Are you trying to prove their point? Nobody needs to try and justify that point of view. What we need to do is show all the bad that became of it. Show everyone the films and the pictures see how many people will forget what happened then. There is no reason this can't be taught in school, lest we all forget as you said, but there is no reason to bring up the evil things said about a people jut so everyone would hate them. Because you know people will grab hold off it and turn it into something bad again.

      April 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
    • pbernasc

      and indeed not coincidentally we have Cheney still gong around saying torture is justified .. which is very much what the Nazi preached.
      We are there already ... this country is screwed .. at least for the time being

      April 15, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.