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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. Jesus

    Of course the author of this blog is ok with the Nazi assignment, because he's a bigot. He believes it's ok to discriminate against people based on their race or religion. Next do we get to hear the KKK's opinion on why cross burnings need to be mandated?

    April 15, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Would you remove Huckleberry Finn from a required high school reading list because it uses the "N" word, too?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Hello

      I know you don't care for the pharisee but God Creator discriminates against the Amorites, Jebusites, Canaanites and everyone else that is not Hebrew. Its ok to descriminate

      April 15, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Yoda

      'Tarded, you are.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  2. Jesus

    I love how this guy says he used to teach Nazi theology as a professor, but then says he's not a Nazi. Yeah, thats like all those pastors and priests preaching religion, but they're not really religious.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Do you not grasp how teaching ABOUT religion or a particular philosophy is not the same as preaching it?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Hello

      Thats ok Jesus, they misunderstood you then and they still do now. You were a Hebrew, NOT a Jew. The Jewish religion came after your death

      April 15, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  3. Hello

    I am the Priest, you are the altar boy. Lets play 'critical thinking'

    April 15, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  4. Mitzy

    The guy who wrote this article is a moron, just as stupid as the teacher.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Jesus freaker

      Where did you get your doctorate?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  5. amygdalan

    As a Jew, I agree with Mr Prothero when teaching at the college level. However, at the high school level this lesson is too easily abused and misunderstood.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • kitz.v.hennegan

      I am christian, but that being said there are fanatics in all religions ...When one censors part of the story the full story is not known..even though the other part of the story is about a crazy mad man bent of destroying the world.. my point is we study history so we don't make the same mistakes again...Not just study that parts that make us feel good... .

      April 15, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  6. Lycidas

    Eh...while I understand what the teacher was trying to do...I'm not sure High School is the best place for it. I might change my mind if it was an elective course instead of a mandatory english course.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • The real Tom

      I am wondering if this was an AP class or an IB class, in which students would be expected to do more challenging work than in a regular setting.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  7. gandfs

    The author explained the situation well and I'm partial to his line of thinking. I do think the assignment is better suited for a college classroom though. Its an assignment thats too mature for high school students and thats the only offense I find.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  8. panders0n

    This opinion piece is an example of the age-old tactic used by attention-hungry press, to put out a "contrary" piece that goes against a backlash; it is calculated to get your attention and make you read it. Period.

    Having said that, even for an "against the tide" piece, this one is a bit silly. I am a high school teacher of history. Any good teacher knows that there are ways you teach "critical thinking," and ways you don't. This "assignment" was, at best, a very dumb idea. Arguing a contrary position may be great, yes, but this asks students to construct ugly racial diatribes, against people who very well might be represented in the class itself! What "deeper understanding" will this bring? Even in "simulation" style teaching, there are boundaries of taste – if you think this assignment is good, why not go further, and have students dress up in SA uniforms and attack people on the street?! What better way to "understand" history?! Of course this would be ridiculous, just as the assignment is. Come on, let's use common sense here.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • mom2martyb

      This post is the best post I have read...I totally agree....Thanks.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • JFCanton

      If the author or this teacher was looking for nonsense to simulate, I would think that something like the anti-German propaganda from WW1would be much more attractive. It would need to be something contained.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • kevin in va

      And as a history teacher, you should know, better than most, that those that forget history, are destined to repeat it.
      Just because a subject is POLITICALLY incorrect does not mean that it did not happen.
      Personally I think that teachers need some leah way to teach a little more outside the box.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  9. John Avedisian

    My take of this is " Do the assigement and get over it" Albany Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard,and members of the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Federation of New York, should be the ones to apologized for acting like a bunch of fools. We are talking history....it happen it was wrong but our childern still can learn for the assigement. If fact, it might make them a better person when it all said and done. Everyone else should stay out of it. What is this world coming too.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  10. Cues who

    This article is listed under OPINION. That is all it is, one man's opinion and he has no "skin in the game". The only opinions that matter are those of the students and their parents. If they found it offensive then they have the right to object. The teacher could have found hundreds of similar assignments without trying to be so controversial, in my opinion.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  11. The GOP should pack up and leave

    I agree that one key to learning critical thinking is 'supporting' a view that is the polar opposite to everything you believe in. Try to find the logic within an argument you would spend your life arguing against. But this? The teacher could have taken a different approach. I understand the idea of getting students to support such a heinous idea (although I am very surprised that any high schooler is learning about WWII because all of my history classes ended right before the Civil War) but why not have them support the wrong conclusion that Germans were the master race? That they thought they had a right to change the face of Europe? The 'Jews are evil' idea is wholly wrong and should never have been said.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  12. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    @Martin,

    so ... critical thinking should not be taught in high-school?

    Not everyone goes to college.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Oops – forgot to reply. Reposted below.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  13. Veronica

    I think this is a great assignment, and I would have tried my best to do it in high school.
    And it really does have value in the classroom, and if anything, it DISCREDITS many reasons that the Nazis persecuted the Jews. I mean, come on... Most people in my High School KNEW that Jews were killed in the Holocaust, but nobody ever knew WHY. With that being said, this sort of assignment could lay out the flawed thinking thinking that led to the Holocaust, and show which sort of racist, discriminatory mistakes shouldn't be repeated, and the potential outcomes of those mistakes.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • The GOP should pack up and leave

      People in my high school were never taught anything about WWII. History went from Columbus setting sail to right before the Civil War. When I got to college, I couldn't believe all the things we got to learn there.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @GOP should pack up ...

      Ironic that you should say that. I posted this on a forum just the other day:

      The way American history is taught is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

      Most Americans are taught a historical chronology something like:

      1. In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue
      2. In 1620 the pilgrims arrived to escape persecution from the evil king and then later celebrated the first Thanksgiving

      then there's a big gap (except in NY where people learn that Pieter Minuit purchased Manhattan for $24*)

      3. In 1775 the colonists revolted because of 'oppressive taxation without representation'

      * It's probably apocryphal but it was trade goods in the amount of 60 Guilders.

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

      So what are the usual topics in HS history? The regular curriculum at my HS (private) was: World History, American 1 (to Civil War), American 2, and then various electives. Nobody I know got past Nixon, but they all did at least get through WW2.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  14. mom2martyb

    I don't know...I must be getting old. It seems to me the Holocaust will soon be forgotten anyway. The survivors are dying and so many people call them liars when they speak, that many of them never told their stories. Great Britain won't teach it because it offends Muslims. I did hear of a group of German people in Germany wish to remove all the traces of the atrocities, I guess for self absolution...just my thought.There are people who believe it never happened...ask a survivor about that. As far as that goes, I know a survivor very personally. As a Jew, I find the concept of the assignment interesting,but before too long, the Holocaust will just become a myth, told by Christians and Muslims alike, and that makes me very sad. And for my part, like I said, I am old, I fear Christian Theology. Many terrible things have been done in the name of Jesus and the Holocaust is just one. Sorry, for getting off topic, like I said I am old and studied the "Final Solution" for over 25 years...guess I am biased. I will get off my tangent now, Shalom.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "It seems to me the Holocaust will soon be forgotten anyway"

      It will be unless people are forced to confront it. The ADL does themselves a disservice here by effectively wanting to brush this under the rug.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • kitz.v.hennegan

      I am christian, but that being said there are fanatics in all religions ...When one censors part of the story the full story is not known..even though the other part of the story is about a crazy mad man bent of destroying the world.. my point is we study history so we don't make the same mistakes again...Not just study that parts that make us feel good... .

      April 15, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  15. DustyOnes

    New York....more nazi liberals.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • Jesus freaker

      Let me guess. You're from the south and you think that our children should get a shortened and more kind and gentle version of the holocaust story and that they should spend more time discussing the simpler times back when animals and reptiles could talk.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • sparky

      okay Dr.Dolittle what animals have you heard talking ....

      April 15, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  16. adam

    This teacher should be fired for trying to make propaganda look like a bad thing!

    April 15, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • Jesus freaker

      Funny

      April 15, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  17. Wiseask

    The teacher's next assignment is for her students to write a convincing paper on why blacks should be called nig*ers and how and why they're inferior to whites.

    There are plenty of ways to teach Nazi propaganda and the evils of the Holocaust without having your students adopt them.

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

      He was trying to teach them how propaganda affects a person. They should reward him for his originality.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
  18. Paul

    In other news schools in Albany decided to ban 1984 due to the double plus ungood bellyfeel it creates.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • Jesus freaker

      They don't like Van Halen?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  19. R Burns

    Way off base, and just propaganda for this author's own teaching style and dogma. Perhaps some who called themselves "Christian" even at high levels backed the Nazi regime and what it did, but that does not mean Christians in general backed the holocaust-or that those who might have actually lived Christianity as it is meant. Quite the contrary. Given the number of individuals and groups today who feed on destructive behaviors, it is essential to realize the effect such an assignment might have on students. If such work is to be assigned for reading and discussion, it has to be tempered with the morality that the instructor intends as the lesson and not encourages as a writing assignment putting students in the place of holocaust leaders. So one student felt terrible and understood the real lesson, what about the glowering one in the back row who took it seriously and begins to plan for the destruction of innocent people in his neighborhood? Who is responsible now?

    April 15, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  20. Jeff

    We had at least one assignment in high school where very staunch Christians were forced to argue the validity of other religions, in the process disproving their own. Best way to teach critical thinking is to force someone to argue a view completely contrary to their own, no matter how ridiculous.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • Martin

      Not at the high school level and not when it involves racism or antiSemitism. The point the author missses completely is the world of difference b/t high school and college students, who are older and more mature. Can you imagine a writing assignment to argue that blacks are inferior and slavery was justified??

      April 15, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Martin, (reposted here)

      so ... critical thinking should not be taught in high-school?

      Not everyone goes to college.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Chuckles

      @Martin

      I agree with you to a point. This assignment would have been better suited for collegel level than high school level, but the message was a good one that should be taught in high school. Where this partiular assignment went awry is its execution and you bring up a very valid point. Would it have been acceptable to write an essay on the merits of slavery in the 1800's in defense of the confederacy? Absolutely not.

      I think for both this assignment and the hypoithetical one you gave, a better suited assignment more conducive to learning would be a socratic method of discussion talking between students or even a quick synopsis from one student to another to explain why people went to war over issues that are now considered to be horrible. It would be interesting to discuss why a random german citizen, or a random white man in the south would want to take up arms and actually kill someone, but it should stay in the class room and not be treated as an essay for a grade.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • sparky

      Being a Devil's Advocate when it goes against your own honorable moral codes can be quite enlightening. High school debate teams tackle weightier subjects, don't they ? If not– then they should

      April 15, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
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