School apologizes for ‘evil Jews’ assignment

“You must argue that Jews are evil” in a five-paragraph essay, using Nazi propaganda and personal experience “to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”  Hoping to teach persuasive writing, critical reading of propaganda and  history, an English teacher at Albany High School (New York) told students to pretend the teacher was a Nazi official who needed to be convinced of their loyalty.

A third of students refused to write the paper. Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said the assignment should have been worded differently and apologized. “I don’t believe there was malice or intent to cause any insensitivities to our families of Jewish faith,” she said.

Vanden Wyngaard said the exercise reflects the type of writing expected of students under the new Common Core curriculum, the tough new academic standards that require more sophisticated writing. Such assignments attempt to connect English with history and social studies.

I’m quite sure the teacher doesn’t believe Jews are evil. But the assignment was unwise. Plenty of people still think Jews are evil. Anti-Semitic trolls lurk in the comments section of most blogs. It’s current events, not history.

If the teacher had come up with a uncontroversial assignment, would it have taught critical thinking as effectively? asks Ann Althouse.

Why not ask students to write an essay urging Germans to vote for Hitler in 1933? (Advanced students could pretend to be American communists defending the Hitler-Stalin pact.)

Integrating history with other subjects requires forethought. A New York City math teacher raised hackles earlier this year with slavery story problems that seemed to trivialize slave ship deaths and whippings.

Update: The Albany teacher has been placed on leave, reports AP. That’s an over-reaction. Meanwhile, her classes are about to begin reading Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. 

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Comments

  1. GEORGE LARSON says:

    From http://althouse.blogspot.com/

    Teaching critical thinking: What if you had to argue the other side of an issue?

    What if you were teaching critical thinking and the issue you assigned the students to argue the other side of was something that it would be very difficult and uncomfortable to have to argue? Would you think you’d come up with an excellent assignment or would you find yourself under attack in the national news and in danger of losing your job?

    What if you had to argue that the high school teacher who assigned his students to justify the Nazis’ antagonism toward the Jews had come up with a pretty good assignment or at least an acceptable assignment, especially since he asked the students “to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were ‘the source of our problems’ using historical propaganda and… a traditional high school essay structure”?

    Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion,” the assignment read. “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
    What if you had to argue that the teacher did not display “a severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity,” as charged by Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, the Albany, NY superintendent of schools? What if you had to argue that Wyngaard’s reaction is anti-education and anti-academic freedom and destructive of the very mental powers that, if developed, enable a citizenry to resist government propaganda of the kind the Nazis deployed?

    “The assignment is flawed in its essence,” Rabbi Eligberg said. “It asks students to take the product for a propaganda machine and treat it as legitimate fodder for a rational argument. And that’s just wrong.”
    What if you had to argue that Rabbi Eligberg was wrong to say that’s wrong, because students will be subjected — throughout their lives — to propaganda that is much less obviously wrong and that will seem like rational argument and that working from the inside of creating propaganda from bad information, making it seem persuasive, is how you strengthen your power to resist propaganda and to dismantle it?

    • And what if the students had to imagine that their teacher was a slave owner and they had to construct arguments justifying slavery? Your position would remain unchanged, yes? How about you roll with that assignment and let’s see what happens.

      • GEORGE LARSON says:

        I think Althouse’s point is a good one. A diplomat, lawyer, soldier, salesman, manager, politician or briefer should know and understand the opposing arguments they will face. Adults have to deal with immoral situations. I know I have. How would you negotiate with your enemies? Taking a tough example from history is a good idea. We still have people defending communism, anti-semitism and terrorism in our colleges. There are still people who defend slavery, kill heretics and want to burn witches in this world. The blood bath we call history and current events make more sense if we appreciate the conditions, attitudes and beliefs. Ignorance of the opposition is not protection.

        I could roll with justifying as an academic exercise to justify bigotry, slavery or anything else a twisted mind can think of.

  2. Peace Corps says:

    If had been given this assignment, I would have first asked if I could do an alternate paper. If the teacher could not/ would not agree then I would have flat out refused to do the assignment.

    I know it’s been over thirty years since I was in high school, but everytime I asked for an alternate assignment my teachers came up with something acceptable for us both.

    Do teachers not do that anymore?

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Considering the usefulness of feigned outrage and beingoffendedness, it would seem absolutely nuts to provide an assignment which would really offend a good many people.
    What was the teacher thinking? I give the teach a zero for paying attention to the world.
    OTOH, as somebody suggested, defending the US communists’ support of the USSR, right up to Barbarossa, would be more useful and nobody who might be offended is in a position to say it out loud.

  4. SuperSub says:

    While I do appreciate the need to teach students the ability to adopt and defend a viewpoint contrary to their own… quite simply, the assignment sucks.
    Nowhere is there any necessity to use the Holocaust as a topic matter for this English assignment. Whatever standards this assignment is supposed to meet could be met with something much more mundane… in fact, the controversial nature of the assignment, even if it did not become a matter of public outrage, would distract the class from the actual skills that are being taught and reinforced by the assignment. This is what happens when you encourage teachers to step outside the boundaries of their own education and practice… they become focused on how the assignment applies to their own content area and lose the ability to evaluate the assignment rationally as an outsider would. The controversial nature of the topic becomes nothing more than a way for the teacher to spice up their lessons, bringing ‘relevance’ and encouraging student ‘engagement.’ We’ve seen this recently with the slave math and Jesus stomp assignments…educators who simply lost sight of what they were supposed to teach.

    • The number one complaint I receive from my students is that school is boring (mundane). This teacher was attempting to create a lesson that would teach a valuable skill to the students, and be interesting enough that the kids would care.

      Though I wouldn’t be brave/dumb enough to do something similar in today’s environment.

      • SuperSub says:

        What’s so wrong with school being boring? So many have forgotten the hidden curriculum that used to be taught in schools – patience, respect, hard work, delayed gratification, and self respect. Boringness (?), like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder… finding a subject boring reveals more about the close-mindedness and lack of self motivation of the student than anything about the lesson.

        • SuperSub says:

          I have fielded numerous comments from bored students (even in the middle of dissections…. my jaw dropped when I heard that one)… rather than attempting to make the lessons more interesting, I explained why the lessons should be interesting to the students. I expressed my own passion for the subject and explained how it would help them in their lives beyond simply passing a test. It worked, and I’d like to think that it taught them a life lesson about expanding their own concepts of what’s interesting.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    The author of “Screwtape Letters” said it was the hardest writing he’d ever done–of a lot. I can imagine a student trying to do a first draft of something similar. Be bad enough to be doing it, without considering the additional load of the subject.

  6. You know, when I took debate (the next step up from “persuasive writing”), it was always stressed that you must be able to speak on EITHER SIDE of the question. At tournaments, a coin flip decided which side you were on.

    At a very minimum, the teacher should have allowed the students to take either side of her rather ridiculous question. A more thoughtful and effective teacher, of course, would have found some emotionally neutral topic for students to write on.

    For example, a five-minute trip to Google will find this spring’s Interscholastic League debate topic: RESOLVED: In matters of justice, John Rawls’ Difference Principle ought to be preferred over Robert Nozick’s Entitlement Theory.

    (see http://www.uiltexas.org/speech/debate/spring-2013-ld-debate-topic )

    This topic isn’t perfectly emotionally neutral, but if you allow students to take either side, you’re correcting for that.

    By the way, I take this approach because it was the one my high school English teacher used (back in the 1970s). It was a cakewalk for me because I was in debate and had already done a lot of the research – all I had to do was pick a side and defend it.