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. Al

    Christians in this country don't like to admit that, like the Germans in the 1930's and 40's, they also don't like the Jews, African Americans, and gays. Christians don't like to admit that that most Germans during the holocaust were Christian. They don't like to admit that the slave owners in this country were Christian. Most don't know that the Bible gives a green light to slavery. They don't like to admit that last year a U.S. Christian pastor was suggesting putting all gays behind a large fense. Religion has a dark side that should be discussed.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Sam Yaza


      April 15, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
  2. DCTA

    I think this really is one of the best assignments addressing the power of propaganda during the Nazi error! I applaud this teacher for what s/he was trying to do! It obviously worked as it stirred up discomfort among the students and a robust discussion in Albany.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  3. SAB

    So when I was in the 7th grade, we were put in pairs and assigned a side of a debate. The point being that anything can be justified and there are two sides to every story and you need to understand the other side so that IT WON'T HAPPEN again.
    And also to understand the history of a nation.
    I am Jewish. I was put in the anti-Nazi argument with a classmate and another classmate of mine (who was Jewish) was paired with someone to defend the Nazi argument.
    We learned through this how basically an entire nation (obviously there are exceptions, but overall) can be persuaded to follow a horrible belief system. And we learned of the factors from around the world (including the US) helped contribute to this happening.
    This teacher is trying to teach. Perhaps he did not explain the point of the assignment because he knew it would reveal itself.
    I'm sorry, but firing this teacher is just plain wrong.
    That's just saying "let's hide from what happened and not try to understand it so that we can ensure it will never happen again"
    If you forget the past, the past will repeat. If you understand the past, you can avoid repeating it.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  4. Jim

    1) the type of assignment described by Prothero is better suited to college students, not highschool students
    2) Prothero's defense of the his own assignments maybe valid, but no where do I see the teacher in question offering a similar justification. I think its a mistake to assume anything about the teacher's intentions.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • The real Tom

      I agree, and said so. The school system's administration is so busy covering its ass that they'll never allow the teacher to give any explanation.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  5. Kevin

    What I'd like to see is schools teaching that the holocaust was not JUST a jewish tragedy. Only 1/2, or less, of the people killed in the holocaust were jewish, yet we only talk about the jewish loss, with the odd footnote that "a few" gypsies, mental patients, etc.. were also victims

    I've long felt that we do a great disservice to humanity by forgetting the other victims, and to be honest I refuse to devote any sympathy to the jewish victims/survivors until the jewish community shows some compassion for these other victims and stops hogging "holocaust" as a jewish-only tradegy

    April 15, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • Chuckles


      You clearly have not done enough digging then to realize that there has been a lot of time devoted to recognizing all the victims of the holocaust, not just the jewish ones. Why it's so focused on jews though rather than a greater portion is that it might have been 1/2 of the amount of people killed altogether, but to the Jewish community, it was an entire 1/3 of the world population.

      Think about that for a moment, let it sink in. Do you understand the magnitude of losing an entier 1/3 of a community to anything let alone a systematic and brutal way in particular? Why we focus on the Jewish tragedy of the holocaustis because it nearly succeeded in wiping out an entire sub-population of earth. The only people who believe that this is a jewish only tragedy are the people who are slightly anti-semitic to begin with and think that jews are always trying to cast themselves as consumate vicitims (which is not true).

      Try going to the Holocaust museum and actually go through it for a moment and see how much is dedicated to ALL victims of the holocaust, not just the jewish community.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • Martin

      Have you been to the US Holocaust museum? Other victims of Nazism are featured there, so your premise is just wrong. And we're not looking for your sympathy. You can keep it.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • Kevin

      Chuckles, Martin, go ask as many people as you want about the holocaust and I guarantee that 99% will only talk about jews. Ask about Auschwitz and they will talk about jews, even though the first victims were not even jewish

      It doesn't matter what is in the museums, most people don't go to them anyways

      Oh, and Chuckles, the jews did not even lose the greatest percentage of their population to the holocaust, so that theory is off

      April 15, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  6. usscott

    This teacher did nothing wrong. Critical thinking and persuasive argument means presenting a "hypothetical" arguement. The Nazi regime was indeed an afront to humanity as a whole. but, to cover it up and deny it rather than disect it is a nearly equal afront. The famous quote, "Those who do not LEARN from history are doomed to repeat it" very much holds true in this instance. The tendancy here seems to be one of, "Oh, we CAN'T talk about THAT". It is exactly the wrong lesson. It is getting to the point with "polical correctness" that one cannot even say, "Good morning" without insulting some-body. TOUGH! The Holocost happened. What is to say this teacher did not assign this so that the "arguement" could be disected in class as a group discussion specifically to show how absurd it is?

    April 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  7. boocat

    The Nazis killed an estimated 12 million people – 1/2 of which were Jewish. Why are the other 6 million never mentioned? Are their lives worth nothing?

    April 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      I have heard then mentioned plenty, have you not taken a history class? What rock do you live under?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Alias

      I have to agree with boocat.
      It's the jews who are building memorials and keep showing up as victoms in movies. The ADL doesn't seem too concerned with protecting the other groups that got put into the same gas chambers.
      However – this assignment was about teaching the kids how masses of people just like us could be convinced to kill innocent people. I think we need more of this in school. A lot more.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • Chuckles


      Agree with Blessed are the Cheesemakers, What rock are you living under? There are plenty of monuments to all vicitms of the holocaust, not just the jewish people, you are either not looking at all or you're blinded by your dislike that this tragedy involved the jews a lot.

      The issue with this assignment isn't the idea, it was the execution of it that was in extremely poor taste. The ADL might have overreacted a little bit, but they still had a very understandable one and you, as a non jew (I'm assuming) should be irked as well at the assignment instead of trying to defend an assignment that defends the nazis.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • George

      Maybe the other groups are not pushed front and center because only the jews systematically use the holocaust to further their cause?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • Alias

      the assignment was to find the german arguement, NOt to agree with it.
      Big difference. This was a lesson in critical thinking.

      April 15, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  8. Norm

    " To far too many American youth, the Holocaust is an echo of an echo. Assignments like this bring it alive in all its horrors."

    This is the real issue. How times and for how many years/generations/centuries are we going to be forced to feel bad about something that we didn't do and would never do?

    April 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "we didn't do and would never do?

      So sure are you.

      Ohhh. Great warrior.
      Wars not make one great.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Alias

      This assignment had nothing to do with making anyone feel bad.
      It was about teaching the kids something more than memorizing historical facts.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Bill

      Are you sure "we" would never do that? The US rounded up people during WWII as well.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Ugh

      The fact that you would say something so asinine is why we still need to learn about it, good to know you're above everything though, good for you.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Where does it say you should feel bad?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Of course, Americans would never single out a particular ethnic group and try to eradicate them.
      So what if the blankets were infected with smallpox – they kept the indiginous people warm, didn't they?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "something that we didn't do and would never do?"


      I like the examples provided here: Ja-panese internment in WW2, the genocide and marginalization of the native Americans. (Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln ordered persecution or execution of native Americans.)

      We could go further to the marginalization of the 19th century Irish Catholic immigrants or their 20th and 21st century counterparts – Latino Catholic immigrants. And let's not get started on black Americans.

      No, we would never create propaganda that persecutes minorities, not in this country.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
  9. Felix Sinclair

    Censorship is never a good idea.

    April 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  10. Laurie in Spokane

    This topic should have been discussed in class, and not made a gradedwriting assignment. Just goes to show that no matter how intelligent one might be, you can really be stupid as well, as in the case of this teacher. He/she just needed to do a little extra thinking about the ramifications of such an assignment. Unfortunately, most teachers are two dimensional in their outlook.

    April 15, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Yes laurie, the last thing we want is children with critical thinking skills.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Laurie in Spokane

      It takes critical thinking skills to be able to verbalize intelligently and argue about a topic even if you don't agree with it. Having to write the argument for a school grade puts a whole different aspect on it.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • agFinder

      But he had apparently been doing this for years?

      April 15, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • The real Tom

      The mistake the teacher made was in thinking that most people would realize the purpose of such an assignment. She overestimated the intelligence of the community. Teachers are told to create challenging projects and assignments, but invariably when they do, they are punished by the very systems that lambaste them for not providing a "rigorous" enough experience.

      I suspect there is FAR more to this story than has been heard and we'll probably never get to find out what really happened, because the administrators of the school district will be too busy covering their asses to ever tell us.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • ed

      What's the problem? Teacher made it clear it was hypothetical. In high school my American history teacher was also a WWII vet. He had lots of "liberated" Nazi items. When it came time for covering WWII he would decorate the classroom with Nazi banners and flags. He had and old phonograph that he played records of Hitler's speeches. AND he wore a full Nazi SS uniform each day. Talk about an impression! He gave us a taste of the REAL Nazi Germany. I bet I learned more about WWII and the Nazis than you or anyone else here.
      Of course today people like you would demand my teacher be arrested and executed.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  11. Logic

    She should have asked right away to be given another assignment. Most good teachers will respect that. I have no problem with the assignment as given, but I also understand if anyone didn't want to do it because it was too upsetting. There should have been a plan B for her.

    April 15, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
  12. selfevolved

    Sounds like these people have never heard of debate club. Normal assignment.

    April 15, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      That's what I thought.

      A classic reflexive action from the ADL.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  13. steve

    The assignment was pure bigotry. Of the infinite things the students could have been encouraged to defend, this was pure racism. Change the word "Jew" to "Muslim" and see how tolerant everybody is.

    April 15, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Don't you get it? This is an example of exactly the kind of demonization occurring right now to Muslims. Do you think maybe the teacher would draw a parallel with the propaganda of Nazi Germany and that of current myths about Muslims? Don't you think at some point the teacher might very well point out that the same kind of thinking about ethnic and religious groups continues even today? That genocide isn't something that ended with WWII?

      April 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • Nclaw441

      Or wait until the topic is US slavery and give a similar assignment...

      April 15, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  14. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    Hear hear! Stephen Prothero.

    Well said.

    I haven't trawled thought the 657 comments so far to read all the inevitable posts by the Christian apologists trying to state that the Germans of the Third Reich weren't Christian or weren't "true" Christians. Doubtless they are there in scores.

    Germany was overwhelming Christian – both Lutheran and Catholic – during the Third Reich. These are the people that either directly participated in the persecution and extermination of Jews, gays, the Roma and the mentally ill, or by turning a blind eye, condoned it.

    The motto of the Wehrmacht wasn't "Gott mit uns" for nothing.

    April 15, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • Chuckles

      I agree with your post, except for congratulating Stephen Prothero. I personally disagree that there isn't anything wrong with the assignment. It was very wrong in its presentation and I'm happy this teacher got called out for it.

      Granted it might have been a little bit of an over reaction, but not by much. This teacher should have known better and instead of focusing on why the Nazi's did what they did in an essay format, it should have been a discussion without the spector of a grade hanging over the students heads.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      On p1 @Saraswati posited that this is a better topic for college. I don't argue that, and think that this assignment would have been better for seniors than soph0mores, but shouldn't high-school be a place where young adults are taught to use critical thinking skills to work through real-world moral ambiguities?

      If we don't do that, then high school is nothing but received instruction by rote and we don't teach people to filter what they hear in the media – from the left or the right.

      Not everyone goes to college.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Mr. Flibble

      "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." – George Santayana

      There's nothing wrong with this assignment.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • Chuckles

      I absolutely agree, I think a more nuanced version of this discussion makes sense in a collegiate atmosphere than it does in high school, but also believe that these discussions need to be had in a high school setting. Maybe it was because I went to a more alternative high school but I recognized that when doing anything for a grade ( a paper, or a test, etc...) I would pay less attention to the content of the material and more on how to get an A. Especially in an english class where papers are largely subjective this became a problem because I wasn't writing my own opinions but rather the opinions I thought my teacher wanted me to see.

      In this instance, it's perfectly acceptable, and indeed should be encouraged, about why the Nazi's did what they did, how they rationalized genocide and why a random nazi youth wasn't as evil as we'd like to believe they were. That should be a discussion though, around the class room and have a back and forth between students and teachers. Made into a paper assignment, it becomes more about getting the right grade and putting opinions down you might fundementally disagree with.

      What I disagree with on this article is that I think Prothero missed what exactly the problem was, not to mention I think there were people on the other side who over reacted to something they shouldn't have. This is a topic that should be addresse din real time discussion rather than a one sided paper where a teacher will ultimately decide if a student says "there was no good reason the nazi's tried to committ genocide" is somehow "wrong" and gets an F for his trouble.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      Stephen Prothero is being deliberately polarizing – to create a debate on the topic instead of letting this disappear in a chorus of 'tut tut tuts' by the ADL and their ilk.

      Sometimes teachers mess up trying to do the right thing and perhaps soph0mores aren't ready for this assignment. It doesn't make the assignment intrinsically bad.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • Chuckles

      @ GOPer

      I'll say this, I definitely consider myself part of the ADL and generally support their goal to stop hate. It doesn't mean I follow the party line and always agree with them and there have been times where they've been dead wrong on an issue (see the ground zero mosque which they ended up opposing). In this instance the shame is that it got such a viceral reaction from the ADL when it should have been a blip where the ADL should have said "Yeah, we know it's wrong, the teacher should have known better and we want to lend some resources to helping teach the teachers at this school and the area on how the best way to teach holocaust education"

      What gets me however is that Prothero, at least in my opinion, is ignoring the intrisically bad assignment itself in favor of debate. Granted it could be on purpose just to start such a debate (actually it's more than likely this is the case) it just annoys me because now there's a solid amount of comments agreeing with Prothero and ignoring the larger issue. This wasn't about stopping a teacher from teaching students how to think critically and from both sides of an argument. This assignment asked for a piece that went beyond looking at an issue from all sides and asked the students to write something that is deeply uncomfortable.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      "it just annoys me because now there's a solid amount of comments agreeing with Prothero and ignoring the larger issue. This wasn't about stopping a teacher from teaching students how to think critically and from both sides of an argument.

      Stephen Prothero has taken a calculated polarizing position. I applaud his stance in terms of slowing down the 'rush to judgment' here – though not to the extent that this particular exercise might have been better implemented.

      The ADL does themselves a diservice by behaving like disapproving nannies and showing up at press conferences to strong-arm an immediate reaction from the school administration.

      Unfortunately they have made it about stopping a teacher from teaching critical thinking instead of a discussion on the 'right way' to teach critical thinking. In their rush to prevent hate speech they overcompensate. It happens with them a lot – including the examples you gave.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Chuckles


      Yeah, it's one of my greatest gripes with the ADL and the problem isn't exactly at the leadership as much as it's from the grassroots level demanding a response from the ADL. The more calculated and slow response the ADL gives, the more donors see them as missing the boat and not speaking up against hate.

      If they had waited, there would have likely been an equal backlash from people wondering where the ADL was, and for a non-profit like them they can't afford to sit on the hands for too long. I'm not saying how they responded was right by any means, in this case like the ground zero mosque or even their reaction to the oscars this year, I've disagreed not on the reason they released a statement, but the seemingly overreaction it it.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Yes, there's an element of damned if you do, damned if you don't, here but they've chosen to make this a national news story where it should probably have been no more than a letter to parents and some quiet mentoring of the teacher in question on 'how to teach critical thinking'.

      They reap what they sow.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • Saraswati

      @not GOP,

      "shouldn't high-school be a place where young adults are taught to use critical thinking skills to work through real-world moral ambiguities?"

      I very much agree and especially with your point that not everyone goes to college. I think my issue is just with how this is done. I taught these types of skills to 13 through 15 year olds (a special program for advanced students I taught in one summer during grad school) and had those students argue a lot of controversial topics, but I would have been very careful with a topic like this one.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      yes, this topic is a tricky one and it needs to be done carefully. Soph0mores might be a bit too young for it.

      An element of this is how frightened parents get when confronted with the idea that their young adult children are being taught critical thinking.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
  15. Vic

    From a Professional stand point, such a drill exercise on an EXTREMELY High Profile topic like that REQUIRES High Professional Capacity. I don't believe a 10th grade teacher or so is qualified to design/develop such curriculum! And, if such curriculum is professionally designed/developed, it would, IMO, be a two-fold! The logical second-fold, IMO, would be to assume the position of the PERSECUTED, ROUNDED UP AND INCINERATED INNOCENT JEWS. A valid balanced (all sides covered) curriculum insures that students' experiences and opinions are SAFEGUARDED by normal person's Common Sense and Good Judgement!

    April 15, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • The real Tom

      How do you know what the teacher's qualifications are? Do you realize that most teachers now must get a master's degree within a few years of beginning their careers?

      April 15, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Earl

      Really! Thanks for SHARING that with us! Everyone will like READING it! Have a good day!!!

      April 15, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • Damocles

      Soooo, by your logic, when kids dissect pigs, the pigs should be allowed to dissect some kids??

      April 15, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      I wonder what the Texas School Board would have to say on this topic?

      It makes me wonder what the 'latest' history books in Texas actually say on this subject.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • Vic

      I appreciate everybody's feedback!

      Nazi Germany and the HOLOCAUST were/are High Profile Historical Phenomenon and Event, respectively!

      A drill exercise of that nature requires (as per curriculum) a background in History, Religion, Political Science, Sociology, and Psychology, as minimum! The article mentions it was applied to English classes!

      April 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • The real Tom

      This from someone who can't manage to figure out the rules of capitalization in English? Dude, the teacher was teaching ENGLISH. The purpose was to write a persuasive paper. The class had been reading "Night."

      Do you think the assignment might have grown out of the reading?

      April 15, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • Doobs

      Nazi Germany and the HOLOCAUST were/are High Profile Historical Phenomenon and Event, respectively!

      Da fuq does THAT mean? That sentence makes no sense at all.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  16. derp

    I cannot believe I actually agree with with Prothero.

    What better way to show the dangers of christianity than to examine how Hitler was able to convince people that jewish genocide in the name of jesus was a divine pursuit.

    April 15, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • Rynomite

      Agree. First time I think I have ever thought he didn't have a completely foolish article.

      Nothing makes one think and learn better than having to play devils advocate for the side you disagree with. This is a standard tactic for any high school debate team. It's a great excercise. The more controversial the topic, the better.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • steve

      Hitler did no such thing! Lies!

      April 15, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • derp

      "My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow my self to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice… And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows . For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people."

      Adolf Hitler

      April 15, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  17. Doc Vestibule

    Nobody is a villain in their own eyes.
    Trying to understand where another person is coming from may reveal a way to find common ground.
    If not, they can be dismissed quickly and without hate.

    April 15, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • MarkinFL

      But there is a difference between understanding where someone is coming from and actually accepting it. Should we really empathize with Hannibal Lector? It is well to understand where these people are coming from and recognize the ease with which people can be swayed by using their own fears. But it is playing with fire to bring young people into actual alignment with such things. This is the core of indoctrination and could be hard to control that effect for the sake of a lesson.

      April 15, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • Alias

      This will not transform these children into antisemites. It will help them understand the power religion and propaganda has over the masses.
      It may even help them understand what is going on in North Korea today.
      What a thought, history teaching kids more than just dates and names.

      April 15, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I did not say it would transform them into anti-semites. However, when you put students deep into such an environment you better know what you are doing. And having someone do their best to defend such beliefs is not necessarily the best way to teach a lesson.
      Simulations of social environments are very powerful teaching tools and also need to be monitored carefully. This lesson rises to the level of simulation and is effectively a psychological experiment.
      I'm not saying that there could not be any value, but was there any oversight in how it was decided to conduct this experiment? Any attempt to obtain consent?

      April 15, 2013 at 11:48 am |
    • Ann

      Markin – your analogy is flawed. You may be thinking of the famous 1971 Zimbardo prison simulation experiment. This was an essay assignment, not a simulated social situation. It is ridiculous to equate writing an essay with a psychological experiment. They are nothing alike.

      I think the writing assignment was a good idea. Don't assume our high school kids are idiots. They need to learn how outrageous ideas become popularly accepted. It does no good to simply label those who follow along as "evil" or "not true Scotsmen." (Or, even worse, "they're not people; they're animals.") Ever hear the saying, know your enemy? You need to understand how the other side thinks, so you can guard against their arguments.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Agreed. What I think is at issue here is the way the exercise was done. An exercise that 1) required students to argue both sides, 2) split the class into sides and then, ideally, had them flip sides in arguing against one anothers papers or c) asked students to list 5 arguments OF each side without actually promoting it would all have worked better.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      "1) required students to argue both sides, 2) split the class into sides and then, ideally, had them flip sides in arguing against one anothers papers or c) asked students to list 5 arguments OF each side"

      Do we know that none of that happened?

      April 15, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Alias

      Markin said "This is the core of indoctrination and could be hard to control that effect for the sake of a lesson."
      So yes, you kind of DID say this could turn children into antisemites

      April 15, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Akira

      MarkinFl, first, I don't think anyone will empathize with Hitler. If they do, they had some problems prior to this assignment.

      Second, Hannibal Lechter is a fictional character. Hitler was a real person shaping history.

      We must never forget the lessons learned, or forget the method he chose to implement his murderous plan.

      Again, agree with Saraswati.

      April 15, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • Saraswati

      @not GOP

      "Do we know that none of that happened?"

      Reading the assignment (see link) it doesn't look like it, but it's possible that the other part was assigned separately and the students knew that, but I haven't seen mention of that anywhere.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  18. MarkinFL

    I generally support teaching methods that make kids think outside their comfort zone. But the value of actually having kids write in defense of Anti-semitic Nazi like beliefs is very questionable. One very well known effect of having someone take the opposite side of a debate than they normally believe is that afterward they will actually feel less opposed to that idea. This IS great when there is a value for people to see both sides and to better understand another point of view since it can help with cooperation and compromise.
    However, unless you see some value of cooperating and compromising with these Nazi inspired beliefs then there is only danger in this sort of assignment.
    If that teacher is familiar with the affects of debate then I would question his innocent intent.

    April 15, 2013 at 10:19 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      If you learn to debate, you will learn to take either side, and argue the case regarldless of personal feelings. There is nothing to fear in open discussion, you shoould be more afraid of NOT talking about sensitive subjects. Critical thinking skills are paramount to the subject.

      April 15, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • MarkinFL

      No problem with open discussion. Great believer in it. No topic off limits once you hist high school. However, there is a very real, measurable psychological effect of arguing in favor of a point you were against. Look it up.
      Do we really need an assignment that requires a student to actually do their best to justify genocide?

      April 15, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • Alias

      You have gone too far in your thinking that these kids may become Nazis because they are researching a historical event. The last Pope was a Hitler Youth, and he apparently saw right through it.
      You need to givr kids more credit. They are as smart as adults, just less experienced. They will better understand how people did the horrible things they did if you let them see it from both sides. This does not mean that they will instantly be transformed into jew-killing machines.
      This is an excellent way to teach history.

      April 15, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Never claimed it would cause them to become Nazis. See my response above. Its about running an experiment without any controls or consent.

      April 15, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • The real Tom

      How do you know there were "no controls and consent.' We haven't heard the complete story. I doubt we ever will. The teacher will be terminated or forced to "retire" and the school system will have taught its teachers not to rock the boat OR ELSE.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      How do you know there were "no controls and consent.'

      Minors cannot give consent and the parents did not know. The administration did not know so there was no oversight.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Ann

      Thanks for the laugh – we shouldn't give high school kids homework without their consent?? Yah, that'll get a lot done.

      April 17, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • Saraswati

      Mark, Ann,

      The line is tricky here. Mark is right in that these kinds of though experiments have an impact. This is something that isn't a popular idea in the mainstream US thinking where everyone wants to believe that their thoughts, behaviors and ideas spring from some internal fountain untainted by society. It is however well known and docu.mented in the academic literature and accepted by people in many other cultures.

      On the other hand we know that failure to understand another's position leads to failure's in addressing those positions. If you don't know where today's neonazis are coming from your attempts to argue against them are laughable. And taking another's side does help one to understand. With the above mentioned side effect of making one more receptive.

      A couple of hard questions arise:

      1) Do we deem some people capable of handling these complex issues without falling into their traps and not others? This is a very unegalitarian position, yet does that mean it is wrong at face value?
      2) Assuming some body of people can handle these discussion (perhaps all or almost all) is there an age at which we should deem one's mind formed enough to handle it?
      3) If we treat these kinds of assignments differently, as an "experiment" to use mark's words, doesn't that apply to all role playing? Where do we draw the line, or do we ban everything rom debate teams to high school drama? If not we are making a moral judgement each time we let someone role play. But is that wrong? We can't, after all, legislate everything.

      I don't know the answer...just throwing out ideas. I think this one was too risky, not only for the above state reasons but politically. But I suspect for now public scrutiny provides adequate checks.

      April 17, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  19. Atheist, me?

    Are you saying the Church has no sinner in their midst. Prothero is right and the earlier we learn that being a Christian means being Christ-like and accepting your failures the better.
    In the words of the Apostle John- if we say we have no sin then the truth is not in us...

    April 15, 2013 at 8:48 am |
    • Science

      Looks like you are still stuck ........................time to evolve out of the mess.

      Origin of Life: Power Behind Primordial Soup Discovered


      April 15, 2013 at 8:55 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Sin and the Church's definition of sin and relationship to it are really only of concern to believers. It's of far more importance that we understand that the teachings of the Church and belief itself provide ready-made channels for ideas of all kinds to exploit as they take hold in people. This is an important lesson everyone should learn from the Nazi movement.

      April 15, 2013 at 8:59 am |
    • JFCanton

      So does science, though. Anything can be abused.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  20. This right here is the set up , loaded comment. Puke!


    "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?"


    What biblical background do you have to make insane comments about BIBLE BASED Christians Plethero?

    The answer from the Christian New Testament is ZERO, NONE. YOU HAVE NOTHING.


    April 15, 2013 at 8:24 am |
    • HotAirAce

      So, it's not ok to ask these these sorts of questions? Because they might put Babble Humpers in a bad light?

      April 15, 2013 at 8:40 am |
    • ..

      Oh, another one who would rather censor the past because it doesn't goose-step with their little Bible "reality". I'd say Prothero is far more qualified to teach than you are.

      April 15, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • ..

      HAA, Puke is obviously another "Hitler was a Christian" denier using the old "no true Scotsman" defense.

      April 15, 2013 at 8:50 am |
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About this blog

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.