Lessons In Bad Teaching

A teacher in Albany is under fire for asking students to write from the perspective of a Nazi:

ALBANY — High school is full of hypotheticals, like “How does one solve for x?” and “What happens if I skip class?” But this week, students at Albany High School were given an alarming thought puzzle: How do I convince my teacher that I think Jews are evil?

That question was posed to about 75 students on Monday by an unidentified 10th-grade English teacher as a “persuasive writing” exercise. The students were instructed 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, of course, 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!”

The assignment — first reported by The Times Union of Albany — prompted an embarrassed reaction from school district administrators, who were alerted to it by a concerned parent on Wednesday night.

“Obviously, we have a severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity,” said Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, superintendent of Albany’s schools. “That’s not the assignment that any school district, and certainly not mine, is going to tolerate.”

Dr. Vanden Wyngaard, who met with Jewish leaders in Albany and made a public apology on Friday, said the assignment was apparently an attempt to link the English class with a history lesson on the Holocaust. The assignment itself seems to back up that theory, telling students to use “what you’ve learned in history class.” It also suggests using “any experiences you have.”

It echoed another recent, controversial assignment in Manhattan, where an elementary school class was given math problems featuring the whipping and killing of slaves, according to The Associated Press. That assignment was an effort to combine math and social studies lessons.

In Albany, Dr. Vanden Wyngaard said, “No one here believes that malice was the intent.”

The teacher was not in class on Friday and is facing disciplinary action, she said, which could include termination.

Outside the classroom, reaction was mixed. Rabbi David M. Eligberg of Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue, said he found the lesson incendiary, inappropriate and academically unsound.

“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.”

He also faulted a less controversial part of the homework, which asked students to use one of three classic Greek ideals — ethos, pathos or logos — to support their anti-Semitic argument. (“Choose which argument style will be most effective in making your point. Please remember that your life here in Nazi Germany in the ’30s may depend on it!” the assignment read.)

Yea, bad idea.

FILED UNDER: Education, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    I disagree. I have no problem with the assignment. In fact it’s about the closest I’ve seen to a high school teaching something useful about creative writing.

    Now, just to ensure that the teacher isn’t grinding some axe, he/she might have offered a range of such assignments rather than single out the Nazi paradigm. Make an argument for forced collectivization, for example.

    But the idea of getting kids to think outside their comfort zone and to make arguments on behalf of the villain, and most of all to use their imaginations, is not a bad idea. It’s the precursor to what I get paid to do.

  2. Kit says:

    I agree with Michael. In addition, if I’d like to see what this teacher planned on doing with his collected arguments. To show how people have justified (and will always justify) the unjustifiable could make for a valuable lesson in any age.

    When the Rabbi Eligberg denies that propaganda is “legitimate fodder for a rational argument” he seems to say that it is more a matter of taste, to either be accepted as an inevitable difference among men, or eradicated through force. Not a man I would want teaching my kids.

    Still, the lesson is clear: toe the line of your age’s shibboleths or be prepared to pay the price. Your life may depend on it.

  3. Gustopher says:

    I think this is a great assignment.

    If it is part of a course plan that is designed to teach the kids about propaganda and coercion in totalitarian regimes, making them toes the line here is an excellent lesson.

    I would feel sorry for the actual anti-Semites in the class who are having their world view help us as objectively disgusting, but they’re just a bunch of horrible bigots so I won’t.

  4. Tony W says:

    Excellent assignment, those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

  5. matt bernius says:

    Contra everyone else, I think that this was a truly inept handling of a good core idea.

    Without a doubt, this type of exercise in critical and creative thinking should be done. Micheal’s points about it are all true. And the teacher’s impulse to have students work from source materials is something that is woefully missing in the textbook driven world of primary and secondary education. And the attempt to connect lessons across disciplines is something that should always be encouraged.

    The problem is that all too often — and in the two cases sited — chances are that rather than collaborating with a teacher from that other discipline, a teacher attempts this all by themselves and gets blindsided by issues that they didn’t think about because they’re thinking more about the goal (and novelty) of the assignment, than the material they are working with. And part of the reason they miss those issues is that they are not used to thinking about those specific things in their day-to-day teaching.

    The exact same goal could have been accomplished, with the same material, by changing the perspective that they are writing from.

    Instead of putting the class into the position of being young Nazi’s and building the case for hating Jews, the assignment could have put the students in the position of a Jew, after the war, trying to figure out how their otherwise normal countrymen came to hate them. Or as an Adult German, who while a child witnessed her parents turning in a Jewish neighbor, explain what happened to their child.

    After such an assignment, the teacher could have had the students write an allegorical sci-fi or fantasy piece where they had to then take on the “Nazi” point-of-view (because that’s what those genres do so well).

    But to assign the project as described above was incredibly inept and ended up doing far more harm than good.


    As an aside, I think this would have been O.K. (though still not great) if it had been assigned in an elective, college level creative writing class. But even then, I’d have an upfront syllabus warning that these type of assignments — designed to push students out of comfort zones — would be coming.

  6. Andre Kenji says:

    To me, the biggest problem of this exercise is not sensitivity, but the fact that antisemitism and Nazism in Germany was a very complex phenomenon. Many Op-Ed writers, journalists and pundits make complete dumb assertions about the issue, it´s even more difficult for High School to write accurately about the issue.

    (It´s true that many Op-Ed writers, journalists and pundits have the same knowledge than high school students, but you know what I´m saying).

  7. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    Many Op-Ed writers, journalists and pundits make complete dumb assertions about the issue, it´s even more difficult for High School to write accurately about the issue.

    That’s what makes working from primary sources and actually taking them seriously such a brilliant exercise. A pity the guy has a moron as boss. We can be pretty sure that, if he survives this, he will do just the usual useless crap from now on.

  8. JKB says:

    I would say it wasn’t a bad assignment. Especially, if the next assignment was to refute their arguments in this one.

  9. matt says:

    Wow Micheal and JKB agreeing on something..

    For the record I think the assignment could of been brilliant.

  10. tyrell says:

    A better lesson would be to watch “Freedom Writers”. An even better lesson would be to have a survivor come in and talk to them. These “shock value” type of lessons create more problems than they are worth. Another idea would be to study the transcripts of the Nuremberg war trials. These are very revealing concerning the attitudes of the people in charge. A lot can be learned from this, which occurred in one of the most advanced countries in world history. I had a history teacher who was in WWII and went in during the liberation of Europe. We had to write how this could have happened and what could have prevented it. Years after WWII, a top German officer came out and said that if more people had spoken out, it would not have happened. A lesson there too.