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. Dave

    Just who were these smart Christians with doctoral degrees who supported the Holocaust?

    April 15, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  2. Hello

    The damage is done for Boston University – Fire the boy

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

      You don't think they know his curriculum? What are you like 10?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • Jesus freaker

      When you say fire, does that involve a stake and flames?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  3. oldguy68

    A really bad choice of topics, but the idea of choosing a controversial idea -by which I mean there are legitimate ways to argue for or against the premiss- and presenting arguments for different beliefs is a good exercise in research and forming an opinion

    April 15, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Pete Seria

      The other thing that this "writer" fails to address is that these were HIGH SCHOOL students. If this issue is going to be addressed, it should be done with more mature students in a college environment. I can't believe he doesn't see this issue as inappropriate for 14 and 15 year olds. This is very much an adult topic. The same persuasive skills could be cultivated by discussing why Social Media is bad for kids. This teacher was flat out wrong for asking 14 year olds to justify genocide.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  4. Hello

    Boston University : You should fire the author of this. Seriously what kind of teachers do you have. Last place I will recommend for any student is Boston University

    April 15, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Doobs

      Maybe Penn State is more your style?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  5. Pete Seria

    OK. This assignment is OK. When will a teacher assign an essay asking students to make a case of, "Why it's OK for Catholic priests to molest little boys." If you're OK with students making a justification for genocide, certainly you'd be OK with this.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Atheist, me?

      The major problem here is that Prothero did not identify Hitler as a Christian. Yes indeed a professor of Nazi theology did not do it. So why do some dumb Atheists want to? I have had the honest intelligent Atheists admit that he wasn't a Xtian. He like any dictator will use his people anyway he come. In this case their Xtianity.

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

      Dumb and dumber.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Yes..I would be OK with that. Critical thinking techniques need to be taught, and no better way to learn critical thinking is to debate from a side you dis-agree with. You will learn more by examining both sides of any issue, regardless of the subject matter, and sensitive issues create debates that are actually easier for students to research information. Whether or not the information is correct or not is up to the due dilligence of the child, and discussion surrounding issues of morality is really best when put into a debate such as this.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Hitler was a christian, Identified himself as christian, was recognized by the catholic church as christian, and disliked atheists.
      That is the reality.
      You may think that he was a bad christian, but christian he was.

      April 15, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • derp

      "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"

      "The personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew."

      “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

      Adolf Hitler

      Hitler was christian. He murdered jews, atheists, gays and anyone else who did not fit the "christian ideal". He makes this very clear throughout his reign.

      I know it sucks having to admit the he is one of yours, but he was.

      Atheists have no reason to single out jews.

      Christian zealots do.

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

    It is ok to discriminate. We all do. Its not ok to hate.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Joe

      What does that have to do with the author's class?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  7. rubytu

    I understand that this (the writing assignment) could be a very good way for people to learn to understand how we are all in danger of falling into these types of thoughts, especially with peer pressure, not to mention government support! It does happen. It's a very hard thing to face. Scary!!!

    April 15, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  8. derp

    “National Socialism is not a cult-movement– a movement for worship; it is exclusively a ‘volkic’ political doctrine based upon racial principles. In its purpose there is no mystic cult, only the care and leadership of a people defined by a common blood-relationship... We will not allow mystically- minded occult folk with a passion for exploring the secrets of the world beyond to steal into our Movement. Such folk are not National Socialists, but something else– in any case something which has nothing to do with us. At the head of our programme there stand no secret surmisings but clear-cut perception and straightforward profession of belief. But since we set as the central point of this perception and of this profession of belief the maintenance and hence the security for the future of a being formed by God, we thus serve the maintenance of a divine work and fulfill a divine will– not in the secret twilight of a new house of worship, but openly before the face of the Lord… Our worship is exclusively the cultivation of the natural, and for that reason, because natural, therefore God-willed. Our humility is the unconditional submission before the divine laws of existence so far as they are known to us men.”

    Adolf Hitler

    April 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • lol??

      Leaders in a socie movement should be put down like a dog by all the other socies. You must PURIFY!

      April 15, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  9. Jeff

    Derp, you are an antisemitc imbicile.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • derp

      No, I am an atheist.

      Because I am an atheist, I actually have no reason to dislike Jewish people.

      The quotes I posted are completely relevant to this topic.

      Christians have persecuted non christians for centuries.

      Hitler is the most recent, and likely the most egregious case of christian persecution.

      Deal with it.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers


      I don't think you were able to comprehend what was posted.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  10. jeffersonlankford

    You embarass yourself, Mr. Prothero, with your lack of understanding of what the problem is. This is high school, with an authority figure (the teacher) asking children to advocate genocide. This is miles from a college course teaching adults what others argue. I also assume your college course included critique of Nazi theologians; this high school exercise contained no such balance.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Hello

      He wants to experience abuse first hand. This is an open invitation it seems

      April 15, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • Hmmmm

      "This is miles from a college"

      Who cares how far away the high school is from the college?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  11. martin

    I agree with this author completely. This assignment was imaginative, powerful and worthwhile. It's no wonder most high school students in America feel their programs are totally irrelevant!

    April 15, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • mountainlady

      I agree with the premise of this assignment but must object to the subject matter. Nazi Germany and the genocide of the Jews represents the most evil chapter of human history. Many, many lives were sacrificed to stop this evil and there are still many alive who remember it. For a study of the insidious process of a totalitarian government gains control of even educated minds you might study how the Chinese were persuaded to destroy their own proud history by Mao Tse Tung or how a starving people are convinced to love their leader as a God in North Korea. Jonestown or Waco might make good studies. Using the holocaust when there were other examples was poor judgment. I am proud that there were students who refused to complete the assignment or who were at least extremely uncomfortable with it. The race hatred practiced by Nazi Germany is still in the world today and I really don't think students need to be instructed in it.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  12. Hello

    Stephen Prothero obviously has a boring life and wants every nut who reads this to call him and stop him when passing and ask "WHAT THE DICKENS ARE YOU THINKING"?

    April 15, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  13. Jeff

    I think your defense for this teaching assignment is misguided. An assigment could have easily asked the students to argue against the NAZI propoganda and accomplished the same thing. Asking children to defend what is arguably the darkest mankind has ever sunk, seems over the top. What's next, asking them to get into the mind of a child molester and write a paper about why molesting children is a good thing?

    April 15, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Chuckles


      You had me up to the child molester part. The better quesiton, which another poster Martin offered, would be if the teacher asked the students to write in defense of slavery. I don't think at any point child mole.station has been state approved an encouraged by one side and fought against by another.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • derp

      When I was in grade school I had to play the part Douglas in the Lincoln debates. I had to defend slavery.

      I survived.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  14. derp

    “Only in the steady and constant application of force lies the very first prerequisite for success. This persistence, however, can always and only arise from a definite spiritual conviction. Any violence which does not spring from a firm, spiritual base, will be wavering and uncertain.”

    Adolf Hitler

    April 15, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Hello

      Adolph is sorely missed by Christians. He did what they dream of doing. Marrying a Catholic

      April 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • lol??

      Yup, those christians sure corrupted da fuhrer's PURE SOCIALISM. Why do socies need a leader, anyway?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  15. derp

    “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

    Adolf Hitler

    April 15, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  16. derp

    "The personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew."

    Adolf Hitler

    April 15, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  17. lol??

    Have you little socies made your Obama Oath today?? Wouldn't want any repeatin' history.

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

      Always missing an article that in any way remotely related to your blabbering, right lol?? ?

      April 15, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  18. andyst

    Everything that happens is a compilation of events, nothing happens in isolation. What is wrong with getting them to see the the events that led to the holocost. I think that if youth are challanged to see things through the eyes of those who did this they can have critical thought in their own lives and see how things can lead to bigger and worse outcomes. This may have not been the route I would have taken, but I do think the teachers intention was to teach not to destroy. The fact that we cannot have a conversation about it is sad. You cannot learn from silence or avoidance.

    April 15, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  19. 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 |
  20. mel

    was cnn this understanding of anthony weiner or did cnn call for him to resign?

    April 15, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • lol??

      Nobody knows which way a mob will go. It is observable on a rampage for blood.

      April 15, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
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