Laya Albert

When Teaching History Crosses the Line: A Growing Problem in DeSantis’s Florida

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I never thought I would be asked to empathize with Adolf Hitler. 

But one March morning during my freshman year of high school in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, my history teacher handed out sheets of pastel yellow printer paper containing a series of writing prompts. As usual, I stuffed the worksheet in my backpack, planning to get to it later.

The night before the assignment was due, I pulled out the crumpled paper and started reading. The first five words hit me like a punch to the gut: “Imagine that you are Hitler…” I couldn’t believe what I was reading as a sense of disgust sent shivers down my spine. I gathered my composure, continued reading, and immediately realized that the assignment was even worse than I initially thought. It asked students to imagine themselves as Hitler, answering questions from British newspaper reporters during the 1930s. The task was to respond to six detailed questions as if we were personally embodying Adolf Hitler. One such question asked us, as Hitler, to explain how we “justify the fact that Germany has begun a process of rearmament.” The next section of the worksheet asked similar questions as if we were Mussolini, which was equally offensive, given Mussolini’s own atrocities and his alliances with the Third Reich.

This assignment seemed absurd in 2019. Compared to what Black students will soon have to endure in Florida, this history-bending, morally-bankrupt assignments may soon be the norm.

The assignment hit me hard because of the heartbreaking stories that my grandfather shared with me about his family’s unimaginable hardships during the Holocaust. He spent the first two years of his life in a displaced persons camp after being born to Jewish concentration camp survivors near the Czech-German border. The atrocities of the mass genocide tore my grandfather’s family apart, robbing them of their loved ones and their entire pre-war world. The family was forced to leave behind everything they knew and seek refuge in faraway Ecuador, where they had to adapt to a new language and work tirelessly to rebuild their lives from scratch.

I also learned about my first cousin three times removed, the renowned Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld, who wrote about his experiences hiding from the Nazis in the Romanian woods for several years as a young child. Appelfeld tragically witnessed the brutal murder of his own family, my extended family, an experience that left an indelible mark on him and his writing.

Having these stories close to my heart made it impossible to engage in any assignment that would require me to step into the shoes of the man who caused immeasurable suffering to millions of people in the not-too-distant past, including my own family. I emailed my teacher and the school’s principal with the goal of getting the assignment removed from the curriculum. I wasn’t so lucky, as the assignment was a required part of the Cambridge AICE International History class taught at my public school, but I was excused from the assignment with no penalty.

I can only imagine what the other students, most of whom were not Jewish, wrote. It is inevitable that in their efforts to write creative answers and secure a good grade, some may have inadvertently expressed common antisemitic tropes. Others may have, through their exercise writing as Hitler, personally accepted some of his justifications for the Nazi atrocities.

This “two sides of the story” approach to learning history, which I thought was an extreme outlier with this one misguided assignment and which I didn’t experience again in my own high school education, has now reared its ugly head again thanks to the alarming and dystopian anti-woke crusade of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. As widely reported, the state’s new standards for teaching African-American Studies include instruction on the “personal benefit” of slavery to Black people. Essentially, there are two sides to slavery according to the new standards, just as I was forced to think about the other side of Nazism. Florida students will now be taught that slaves may have derived personal benefits from this abhorrent institution, by acquiring skills deemed unattainable through other means. Furthermore, the curriculum propagates the narrative that Black people were complicit in acts of violence during race massacres.

This coming school year, Florida high school history teachers will be required to partly defend and justify the inexcusable system that enslaved the ancestors of their Black students. These slaves were stripped of their freedom as they worked in extreme temperatures from sunrise to sunset, lived in unsanitary living quarters with little or no furniture, had to eat rations of bland nutrient-lacking food, and were separated from their families while often enduring unrelenting violence. But, according to the Florida history standards, this was all okay because these Black people also obtained some important life skills, such as blacksmithing, painting, or tailoring. 

The worksheet given to my ninth-grade history class seemed to suggest that there were two sides to the Holocaust, similar to how Governor Ron DeSantis and some Florida conservatives now approach slavery education. Events as appalling as the slavery and the Holocaust simply do not have two sides. Expecting students to explore slavery from a different angle is inappropriate and offensive. There is no other angle to justify the horrors of the indefensible institution of slavery. Just as I should not have been expected to explore the other side of the Holocaust, Black students should not be compelled to discuss any imagined positives of slavery.

Throughout recent history, there has been a widely accepted understanding of both slavery and the Holocaust. Since the Civil War and WWII, respectively, history teachers in America’s schools have taken a fact-based, indisputable approach to teaching about these subjects. With the exception of Holocaust deniers and Confederate holdouts, it has been commonly accepted that both slavery and the Nazis had no redeeming value. However, anti-woke conservatives are now engaged in revisionist history by showing that not all was bad about slavery after all. This is a case of the “politicization of everything” going too far. You can’t rewrite the history books and change the historical fact just to suit your viewpoint or appease a demanding base of voters. And you definitely shouldn’t use students and their education as pawns in this political game.

Certain historical events, such as slavery and the Holocaust, are so abhorrent that it is never acceptable to find any positive aspects within them, no matter how hard you try. Propagating the idea that Black people gained special skills from slavery is as preposterous as suggesting that Jewish people who survived concentration camps gained important survival skills. Such notions are disgusting and disrespectful. They undermine the gravity of the suffering endured by those who experienced these tragedies. History must be presented accurately and compassionately, acknowledging the profound pain and suffering of the victims of these terrible events.

As Florida students get ready to head back to school, I assume that many Black students will experience a similar feeling to what I felt almost five years ago in my freshman history class. I wasn’t able to change the curriculum and, to the best of my knowledge, the Hitler assignment is still in use. I can only hope that the groundswell of criticism of Florida’s new standards will force a reversion back to fact-based learning, common sense, and decency. 

There was nothing good about slavery, regardless of what Governor DeSantis thinks, just as there was no justification for Nazism. The anti-woke crowd needs to wake up to this reality to leave fewer students traumatized by pastel sheets of printer paper. 

About the Author
Laya Albert is a sophomore at the University of Southern California, where she is majoring in journalism at the Annenberg School. Originally from Jupiter, Florida, Laya writes sports, arts, and opinion articles for The Daily Trojan. She is also a contributor to the student-run SPEC Magazine.
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