In February, high school students enrolled in the course, “Principles of Literary Representation,” offered through the Oswego, New York county CiTi/BOCES New Vision program, were taken aback when presented with an assignment in which they were tasked with supporting or opposing the “Final Solution,” in other words, justifying the extermination of Jews.
Given a memorandum addressed to senior Nazi party members, “THE FINAL SOLUTION OF THE JEWISH QUESTION,” the students were instructed to “analyze the issue, provide ‘your’ Nazi point of view for or against the Final Solution and why, and thoroughly explain your support or opposition to the Solution.” Half of the students were randomly told to justify and support the implementation of the Holocaust, and half were to oppose it.
Presumably, the assignment was meant to promote one of the Common Core’s desired skills of helping to sharpen critical thinking: “Ultimately,” the assignment read, “this is an exercise on expanding your point of view by going outside your comfort zone and training your brain to logistically find the evidence necessary to prove a point, even if it is existentially and philosophically against what you believe.”
Confronted with backlash over the assignment, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at first defended it by contending that it forced students to hone their persuasive and rational skills, that, as she put it, “The concept of having students identify a particular position is pretty critical, whether they can analyze a position, and then decide whether to agree or not.” Whether the idea that asking students to unleash a whole set of genocidal impulses towards Jews as part of a writing assignment is an appropriate assignment in the first place, of course, seemed to not to occur either to Ms. Elia or the teacher, Michael DeNobile, who created the troubling assignment.
New York had a similar unfortunate experience in 2013 when an Albany high school used another obnoxious assignment, this time forcing students, after watching and reading Nazi propaganda, to write a persuasive essay to a Nazi official to convince him in five paragraphs that Jews were the source of Germany’s woes and “that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
In May 2014, the Rialto Unified School District school board outside of Los Angeles faced a similar controversy, fending off universal opprobrium over a third-quarter English Language Arts argumentative writing/research project given to 2,000 eighth-graders. The breathtakingly ill-conceived assignment asked students to “read and discuss multiple, credible articles on this issue, and write an argumentative essay, based on cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe [the Holocaust] was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.”
Most critics denounced the assignment as absurd on its face, since it asked middle school students, after reading only a handful of brief research essays, to convince a reader that the Holocaust, one of the most documented historical events in modern human history, either happened or did not happen. Even more egregious than the notion that the Shoah might not have even occurred was the statement that, as the instructions for the assignment read, “some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual event, but instead is a propaganda tool.”
The notion that eighth graders could coherently disprove something that is a historical fact, not an opinion, is obviously a useless intellectual exercise. And critics of the assignment were appalled that students were even exposed to the idea that the Holocaust was a myth in the first place, a notion which only neo-Nazis or anti-Semites on the lunatic fringe embrace.
While the shell-shocked spokesperson for Rialto school district, Syeda Jafri, assured the media at the time that no complaint about the assignment had been forthcoming from within the district system, either from teachers or parents, the larger question was how the committee of eighth–grade teachers which conceived the critical thinking exercise in the first place had not anticipated the calamitous reaction to their choice for the essay topic—just as the teachers in Albany and Oswego County seemed to have been blind to the toxicity of their respective assignments.
In the Rialto assignment, the language of the assignment itself was classically anti-Semitic, suggesting in the same paragraph—not once, but twice—that the Holocaust “is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain,” and “merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain.” Who sought monetary gain? Who schemed to extort the world? Who had global influence over public opinion? Who sought undeserved profit? For anti-Semites, the answer has always been the same: Jews.
And that was the very clear message transmitted in the essay assignment, that if students accept the notion of a fabricated Holocaust, they also must hold Jews responsible for that vast, self-serving conspiracy. The late Robert S. Wistrich, one of the world’s leading authorities on anti-Semitism, noted that Holocaust denial by definition libels Jews, and “transform[s] the victims into superlatively cunning, fraudulent, and despicable perpetrators,” precisely what the assumption would be of any student who completed the assignment with the thesis that the Holocaust was a fraud, a “scheme,” or a “propaganda tool” used by rapacious Jews to enrich themselves.
In the same way, students arguing for the justifiable extermination of Jews in the Oswego assignment, or the essential malignancy and evil of Jews in the Albany version, have to delve into the basest, ugliest aspects of anti-Semitism to “convince” the Nazi officials in the mock assignment that Jews deserve to be hated, to be scorned, to even be exterminated.
For educators steeped in a contemporary cultural of political correctness, it is nearly unbelievable that no one involved in the creation of these educational exercises failed to see the moral lethality of these assignments’ language. No one has accused anyone involved with the assignments of being overtly anti-Semitic, but in the highly unlikely event that had anyone involved even proposed a topic that touched upon any other ethnically or culturally incendiary topic, it would have been instantly suppressed and never would have made it out of a faculty lounge, let alone into assignments to be given to impressionable middle and high school students.
These assignments, school officials assured parents, were meant to promote critical thinking, and there are certainly a wide range of contemporary, relevant, though controversial, topics that might have provided a rich source intellectual wrestling for those young minds—topics which would not require that students contradict historical fact, and which are still open to actual debate and investigation.
For instance, they could debate whether African Americans are socially and culturally inferior to white people in America, a topic for which there is undoubtedly many opinions on both sides of the argument. They could, as Lawrence Summers did before he was forced to resign as president of Harvard University for having done so, question whether the reason that women fail to excel in math and the sciences, and do not, therefore, fill faculty slots in those fields, is due to a genetic superiority in men, a controversial but oft-debated theory. There are other relevant and current debates in the marketplace of ideas that certainly are open to opinions from both sides, such as whether when a woman undergoes an abortion she is murdering a child, or if homosexuality is a mental disorder and lifestyle choice as opposed to a physiological condition predetermined at birth. If the committee wished for students to evaluate politics and theology, they might have asked if Islam is actually “the religion of peace” or instead is actually an intolerant cult that rejects modernity, requires submission by its adherents, represses women, and has a long history of terror, aggression, and jihad against the infidel world.
All of these topics differ from the ones actually chosen in that none of them can be proven absolutely, and all can be vigorously argued from differing points of view—exactly what the three odious assignments were meant to inspire. But, obviously, none of the alternate topics were chosen, and the reason is just as obvious: had anyone involved in the assignments’ planning dared to have articulated any of the examples above, others in the school systems would be apoplectic at the very thought of questioning prevailing orthodoxies or clearly offending members of the groups involved.
In the rarified atmosphere of multi-cultural America culture, where certain topics are off limits and the behavior of certain victim groups can never be questioned, the idea that abortion is morally wrong, or that women are inferior to men or blacks to whites, or that being gay is somehow defective, or that Islam is theologically malignant—all of these notions are essentially unmentionable, proscribed, too intellectually and emotionally volatile to ever discuss openly or debate, and especially as the basis for middle or high school assignments.
None of these topics would ever be considered for use as a critical thinking assignment precisely because any educator in contemporary school systems would intuitively, and accurately, realize that members of the groups targeted might feel maligned, insulted, libeled, or intimidated by the ensuing discussion, and that students should not be encouraged to foster and racial, ethnic, or cultural hatreds as part of their education.
But when Jews, and the central horror of Jewish history, were the topic, that moral sensitivity seems to have been strangely absent, and the lesson of these incidents is to be found just there: that careless anti-Semitism infected the assignments completely and no one even knew it had entered the room.