Adventures in Education: Major Fail Edition.
A school district in the Greater Los Angeles area recently came under fire for asking 8th graders whether they think the Holocaust “was actually a political event, or merely a political scheme.”
Here is the language from the assignment:
“When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence. For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual event, but instead is a propaganda took that was used for political and monetary gain. You will read and discuss multiple, credible articles on this issue, and write an argumentative essay, based upon cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe this was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth. Remember to address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim.”
The essay came with materials from History.com and about.com, an essay titled “Is the Holocaust a Hoax?” from a far-right Christian Fundamentalist website. Materials by Fred Leuchter, an engineer and leading Holocaust denier who was featured in a fascinating documentary by Errol Morris called Dr. Death, and a theory that Anne Frank’s diary was a forgery.
The School District immediately tried to defend the assignment but quickly pulled back. Professor Lipstadt has an excellent essay on the test at Tablet Magazine:
Professor Lipstadt herself participated in a trial in England about whether the Holocaust happened or not.
The school district tried to defend the essay prompt as a way of teaching critical reading and thinking skills and being able to discern real evidence from fakery and BS. This fails, and there are many other ways to teach students about fakery and BS that are useful and non-controversial. For example, teaching them how to avoid infomercial hucksters and e-mail scams, advertising claims that are too good to be true about.
The question on my tongue is how did public educators fail to see that this essay prompt was a really bad idea. This is one of those stories that causes head-desk and deserves to be labeled epic fail. The universal reaction on the Internet and in the media seems to be “How can anyone in the world think that this is a good idea?” There do not seem to be any Holocaust deniers or anti-Semitic teachers and administrators in the school district.
The essay prompt seems to be developed with a kind of debate-team mentality and the idea that every point as a counterpoint and everything can be viewed through the Rashomon lens of multiple interpretations. This is clearly not true and we do our students and ourselves a disservice by teaching in this mode. The Holocaust is truth and almost everyone but a handful of cranks believes Shoah to be a historical event. The school district needed to go to the cranks to look for arguments about the Holocaust not happening.
I do not think that this is an incidence of anti-Semitic attitudes existing in the United States. There is no evidence to support that conclusion and the school district was quickly and brutally criticized for the essay prompt especially giving it to young students.
There are plenty of things reasonable people can and do disagree on. You can do this with light subjects (cats are better than dogs. T or F?) or serious ones but for serious subjects, you should probably wait until students are close to college age. Schools do have a responsibility to teach that not all arguments are valid though and some a plain idiotic and batshit insane.
I generally do not understand the power and pull of conspiracy theories. They always seem to spiral towards chaos and fail Occam’s Razor. People are also generally really bad at keeping secrets. How many people would need to be in one the conspiracy to fake the moon landing? Hundreds if not thousands. There is no way that this number of people could not spill the secret eventually. This is of an even greater magnitude for the Holocaust.