Good intentions

A teacher’s assignment telling students to write from the perspective of Nazis was poorly structured but not overly offensive

Good teachers constantly search for ways to better engage their students and encourage varied modes of thought. But sometimes an instructor can get too ambitious with his or her lesson plan. Such a situation recently occurred in an Albany, N.Y. high school, where a high school English teacher is being heavily criticized for an unorthodox lesson that is, at its core, not totally unreasonable.

The teacher, in an effort to improve her students’ persuasive writing skills, assigned a very controversial project. She instructed her students to envision themselves as Nazi military officers and write an essay arguing “that Jews are evil,” while using “solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!” A few students did not complete the assignment, and parents grew incensed about the topic. The teacher has been placed on leave with many calling for her to be fired.

While at first glance the assignment may have seemed entirely inappropriate, it is not offensive enough for the teacher to have her job terminated. The rationale behind the essay does not seem malicious in nature. At its core, the assignment was to demonstrate the effects of propaganda. In that way it makes sense to study the Nazis, as Nazi propaganda played a large role in convincing many Germans that the Third Reich’s atrocities were justified. It is unlikely that the teacher assigned the essay because she actually hates Jews. Rather, the assignment was an attempt to get her students thinking from an alien perspective.

The teacher deserves some praise for her desire to improve the argumentative skills of her students while exposing them to viewpoints so different from the norm, even though the way in which she attempted to do so betrayed poor judgment.

The Holocaust was a particularly dark time in history, and it is important that even high school students are able to understand the repugnant beliefs on which the Nazis based their actions. Assigning a more formal essay explaining why the Nazis hated Jews, then, could be an important tool for strengthening a student’s understanding of a major historical event. The same basic idea would be applicable to American events such as the relocation of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War and the enslavement of African Americans. In all those cases, having students research and explain how and why bigoted groups justified their actions would be a beneficial exercise in understanding the repellent points of view that have left a historical impact on our nation.

But having students put themselves in the shoes of a Nazi seems too historically demanding for a high school English class. Even though the students were soon to read Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s book Night, it would take a history class to fully comprehend the full scope of anti-Semitic Nazi sentiments and propaganda during the Third Reich. Thinking like a Nazi would enable students to work on their argumentative writing skills, but the amount of research that would be necessary to craft an essay that is not based exclusively on a superficial understanding of Nazi bigotry is more applicable to a college-level class focused specifically on propaganda or the Holocaust. Next fall, the University is offering history classes on the Holocaust and genocide. Presenting such an assignment in those courses would be more suitable.

The teacher picked a sensitive topic and formatted the assignment in the wrong way. One of the most upsetting facets of the essay was no doubt that students had to place themselves in the shoes of a Nazi officer and write disparagingly about Jews in the first person. Understandably, many students did not want to argue as if they personally hated Jews with the same irrationality as the Nazis. It would have been better to have the students write the essay with a less extreme goal in mind. It is possible to get students to explore the mental architecture of the Nazi ideology without making the students personally espouse the same prejudiced views.

The suspended teacher saw her attempt to creatively engage students backfire, yet she should not lose her job as a result. It should have been obvious that making high school students impersonate Nazis would have drawn controversy. Yet getting students to think from the perspective of the Nazis is not in itself wrong. The assignment seeks to engage students in an unusual way by making them consider different arguments. I hope the teacher will retain her job so that she may modify her assignments into formats that could be constructive if structured properly.

Alex Yahanda is a senior associate editor for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Wednesdays. He can be reached at a.yahanda@cavalierdaily.com.


Published April 16, 2013 in Opinion







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