Holocaust Denial in Our Schools: A Follow-Up

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53 Responses

  1. morat20 says:

    *sigh*. Bad administration — bad curriculum design.

    To begin with, eight grade is a little young to be dealing with unreliable sources. They’re 13 — the fact that people can and will lie (deliberately, accidentally) in books about serious matters is hard to understand. Unreliable sources, bias — kids need to be a bit older to even start to handle that, and you certainly don’t start by tossing them stuff like Holocaust denial literature, which is basically a rat’s nest of logic errors, circular support, and heavily practiced deception — 13 year olds have basically little chance against that, if all they’re relying on is documentation, rather than the opinion and words of an adult or authority figure they trust to add weight to one side or the other.

    They literally lack the tools, the experience, and the ability to parse between the two. Heck, late high school/early college is where kids start to really pick up on biased sources and start to have the bare basics of a “Wait, what?” detection kit.

    I wonder what genius was pushing that particular prompt? Lone teacher? Consultant? Brainchild of a new principle?Report

  2. Tod Kelly says:

    I remember when I first read about this thinking, “actually, if you did it right I could see this this being a really valuable learning opportunity for kids that age.”

    This was clearly not a case of being done that way. Oy.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I don’t disagree with the idea that kids should be taught to weigh sources and evidence. This is a very good critical thinking skill. However I would add some caveats:

      1. You don’t start with a serious issue like the Holocaust.

      2. 8th Grade is probably too young.

      3. You do it with in class discussion and a lot of hand holding. As far as I can tell, these kids were given a very leading essay question and “evidence” but no guidance or instruction before hand. It was like throwing them into the Pacific Ocean to teach them to swim.Report

    • morat20 in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      It’s really not. Not Holocaust denial or any other conspiracy theory that’s got serious support under it.

      If you want to introduce unreliable sources and vetting sources and such, eighth grade is still young for that, but if you do — you do it with hand holding. You pick, basically, easy examples of what to look for — where the ‘unreliable’ source has obvious errors of fact, easy logical errors (like “He says Bob is in the two separate places at the same exact time, despite them being several days travel apart, and his whole case relies on this”), and basically baby-step them in.

      History is actually a really bad area to learn in, because even a lot of adults have issues with ‘How do you know, you weren’t there’.

      While Holocaust denial seems an obvious thing to learn on (“You’d have to be a nutcase to deny it”) it’s actually a horrible choice for kids, because all the things that make it obviously crazy to adults are things kids haven’t learned. Like, you know, in depth study of the holocaust and WWII and the way humans can go really, really off the rails.

      Instead they just handed the kids a he-said, she-said thing about an absolute nightmare of human history and if I was 13 and faced with “Oh, well, humans killed millions of people in a horrific way as scapegoats just 60 years ago” and “That was propaganda” I’d probably really WANT to believe it was propaganda.

      It’s a less painful truth.

      Seriously, this is the sort of curriculum choices you get when it’s designed by people who don’t think things through and don’t grasp how children actually think and learn. As Tod notes, at first glance it’s all like “Hey, super obvious example of a hoax. That’s like selling the Brooklyn Bridge of history! Easy learning experience about how people can lie” — it’s just that, in practice, well — you’ve just introduced a bunch of 13 year olds to holocaust denial and they tend to agree, and it’s gonna be heck knocking that little nugget out of their brains.Report

      • Zac in reply to morat20 says:

        “As Tod notes, at first glance it’s all like “Hey, super obvious example of a hoax. That’s like selling the Brooklyn Bridge of history! Easy learning experience about how people can lie” — it’s just that, in practice, well — you’ve just introduced a bunch of 13 year olds to holocaust denial and they tend to agree, and it’s gonna be heck knocking that little nugget out of their brains.”

        Speaking of selling the Brooklyn Bridge…http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_C._ParkerReport

  3. LeeEsq says:

    I still think that the school should be investigated because there is no reason to take the explanation given by the school at face value.

    If I’m remembering correctly, teachers never taught about reliable and unreliable spices until I became a history major in college.Report

    • dhex in reply to LeeEsq says:

      that’s sad, because it’s more and more necessary to be able to distinguish source trustworthiness (or at least competing agenda balancing) in our intertubian age.

      that said starting with the holocaust is like starting a comedian class with holocaust jokes. you gotta ease into things.Report

      • Glyph in reply to dhex says:

        The thing about using the Holocaust about the starting point isn’t *just* its inherent horrificness – it’s that the sheer scale of the thing can make it seem fantastical to have happened within “modern” history in Europe.

        I’ve said this before, but Hitler and Nazis were some Darth-Vader-I’m’a-Blow-Up-Alderaan-level evil; mustache-twirling, movie-type stuff. Comic-book stuff.

        Except not.

        If I knew nothing about the Holocaust, and you told me about it today, even *I* might be skeptical – come ON, man, those numbers can’t be right! Gas showers? Medical experiments? Are you effing kidding me? What is this, Saw?!Report

      • Mo in reply to dhex says:

        @glyph Even crazier is that the Tuskegee experiments were still going on in the 1970s.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to dhex says:

        This is why I find novels that depict some “unimaginable horror” from an evil character facile. What could be worse than the horrors of 20th century totalitarianism?Report

    • Mo in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Are you sure about that. I definitely learned about reliable and unreliable secondary sources (and what was acceptable to use in a bibliography) were when I was in 9th or 10th grade. College was all about primary vs. secondary sources.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Mo says:

        You might be right. Primary and secondary sources came up for the first time in 11th grade history.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Mo says:

        How long ago was that? When I was in school, reliable sources were encyclopedias, library books, and articles in “reputable” magazines (e.g. Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report. The internet is a whole ‘nother thing.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Mo says:

        That’s rules, though — using background rules (like, oh, being shelved in non-fiction or being listed as a reference in the encyclopedia or on a generated list or whatnot) to determine whether it’s reliable, not using the information within to determine it.

        You can teach students that a paper in a reputed physics general is ‘reliable’ and the hypercube page on the internet is not and why — but you’re telling them what’s reputable and what’s not and rules to figure it out (generally based on ‘getting further information’).

        Which is FAR different then handing them two stories about the same event and saying “Which is true, and also you can’t look it up elsewhere”.

        Doubly so when one’s a time-tested conspiracy theory brimming with every mental hack it’s possible to use, all brought to bear on 13 year olds.Report

      • Mo in reply to Mo says:

        Early/mid 90s. Magazines were not considered reliable and the internet wasn’t even a thing.Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:

      If I’m remembering correctly, teachers never taught about reliable and unreliable spices until I became a history major in college.

      Well, cumin works all the time. But fresh basil will go bad after about a week in the ‘fridge.Report

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    lies and cranberry.


  5. Burt Likko says:

    So here’s the question — can this be turned in to a teachable moment for these kids now? Can they be taught “Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t take everything you read at face value?”

    Of course, college students and indeed some graduate students I encounter do not possess the skill to distinguish between varying levels of credibility and bias in the source material they encounter, so perhaps this is simply too advanced a lesson for eighth graders.

    I hope to be proven wrong for wallowing in this sort of pessimism.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

      “Think about this, kids. How can you take this at face value when, if it were true, the Jews who control the internet would never allow it?”Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Now that is the billion dollar question. The answers give by the kids are rather vile. I wonder if kids are going to need something akin to de-Nazification.Report

      • dhex in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        “I wonder if kids are going to need something akin to de-Nazification.”

        we could send them to a camp!Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Very funny. My first issue is making sure these kids understood that they Holocaust did happen. Bring in survivors, show them Nacht und Nebel, etc.Report

      • dhex in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        i see that more as “the school correcting their rather egregious error” than “de-nazification”.

        maybe a genocide studies segment of history a la look at all the awful things we do to each other? because then you can tie in issues of denial, work in other famous historically denied atrocities (armenian genocide, etc)

        tl;dr: someone needs to do a middle school version of bloodlands.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        I was being unfortunately hyperbolicReport

      • dhex in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        “I was being unfortunately hyperbolic”

        i was being hilarious. it happens. (to me)Report

    • morat20 in reply to Burt Likko says:

      It’s too advanced a lesson for eighth graders. Best you can do is salvage it by doing a slightly older version of “Sometimes people lie” — perhaps pointing out more palatable reasons one might be a denier (unwillingness to believe something so awful could truly happen).

      In fact, I’m pretty certain that the average 13 year old’s brain isn’t even wired to handle that sort of thing in any decent fashion. They can grasp abstracts and shades of grey (so you could teach them that sources CAN conflict, and they can grasp that people lie) but they lack the toolkit — in terms of both education and grey matter hookups — to really parse such things.

      That’s not even getting into the cognitive stuff that’s coming on line — all egocentric and crude social maneuvering and early stage rebellion against any and all to try to develop an individual, unique identity. I shudder to think about how that might screw with their ability to parse sources.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to morat20 says:

        I started learning about the Holocaust in a very careful fashion around 4th grade in Hebrew School. I don’t remember the specifics but I remember it being more focused on a very broad overview with stories of resistance. We read Elie Weasel’s night sometime in 8th, 9th, or 10th grade in my English class. There is also Anne Frank, etc.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to morat20 says:

        When I was ten, I thought the Holocaust was a Jewish holiday. Like Pentacost.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to morat20 says:

        I’m not sure when I learned about the Holocaust. I certainly knew about it by 6th grade, but I think I learned of it earlier. It falls in the category of things “I’ve always known”: not that I never didn’t know it, but that I can’t remember not every knowing it. (I hope that’s clear.)Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Of course, college students and indeed some graduate students I encounter do not possess the skill to distinguish between varying levels of credibility and bias in the source material they encounter, .

      Not so different from the anti-GMO crowd here.Report

    • Rufus F in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Alternately, the lesson could be to play it safe and never read.Report

    • Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Not to mention your clients and counterparties in the kind of litigation you do.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Burt Likko says:


      I certainly think 8th graders — hell, even kids much younger — can be taught to be critical thinkers. How well we can expect them to apply such skills and the stakes we set for their use will obviously need to account for their age and development, but critical thinking is certainly possible for children.

      I do an activity with my students where I introduce a new material — say, Legos — via the “Mystery Bag”. First I shake the bag and they listen to the sound, making predictions. Then they reach inside and touch it and revisit those predictions. Then I reveal it.

      But sometimes I get tricky with the reveal. Suppose I have a bag full of colored pompoms. I’ll take one out — a large blue one — and ask, “What’s in my bag?” “Pompoms!” “Big blue pompoms!” “No, rainbow pompoms!” So I take out another one… conveniently also big and blue. I’ll repeat this a few times until I get a good number of kids thinking they must all be big and blue. Then — blammo! — a small blue one. “Now what do we think?” Eventually, I dump the bag out and reveal a variety of colors and sizes.

      However, I’ll sometimes do that with a material that really is uniform. And some kids will say, “He’s trying to trick us again. There are probably yellows and reds and greens in there.” Then the reveal and they are all in fact blue.

      The goal isn’t to trick them (and it is done so playfully that even when they are duped they have a blast about it) but to teach them two related lessons: A) be willing to revisit your preconceived notions about things when presented with new information* and B) be skeptical of someone controlling the flow of information.

      * With slightly younger kids, you can show them the small blue one and they’ll often still say, “No, they’re still all big and blue. That one doesn’t count.” I guess some adults are like that, too…Report

  6. trizzlor says:

    But where does this lie in the context of the lesson? Was this exercise intended as a final evaluation of how well students can distinguish proper sources after a full unit of learning; or was it intended as an initial overview to show by example how sources can be confused. True, this probably isn’t the right topic nor age group, but it’s not unusual to have lessons structured as “Before we learn the right way, do it the way you know and then we’ll look at the mistakes“.Report

    • morat20 in reply to trizzlor says:

      Not really an effective lesson plan with unreliable sources. IF you wanted to do something like that you’d start with reliable and unreliable sources in general — you wouldn’t spend forever making them read papers on the Holocaust and by Deniers and then write papers on which was right.

      You’d start by talking about accuracy, reliability, and rules-of-thumb. (Starting with fiction/non-fiction and then moving onto reporting versus research, etc) — basically the sort of thing you’d teach when dealing with sourcing papers. During this, you’d use simple examples of accuracy and inaccuracy — places where students can see a primary source and then read a distorted, inaccurate version of it. Like “here is a picture of X. These are the facts of X. Read article Y and identify places where Y is misleading or inaccurate about X”

      You start with mistakes, not deliberate distortion or propaganda.

      Maybe, for a really advanced class, you might spend SOME time talking about the Holocaust and Holocaust denial, holding it up as an example of how someone can lock themselves into cycle, only trusting sources that they agree with and rationalizing away all others. But always — ALWAYS — you establish “fact” from “not fact” cleanly, if not at the beginning by at least the next day, and then walk through how a reader might have been mislead.

      Even than, it’s way too young. Really, college is where you talk about limitations of knowledge and varying points of view and get into “unreliable” sources in the sense of Denial literature. High school “unreliable” sources mean “This is not a sufficiently detailed or accurate reference”, not deliberately inaccurate.

      Honestly, if I was going to do a unit on unreliable references in the vein of “look how far afield you can go”, I’d just find a flame-bait Wikipedia article and compare and contrast edits — “Look how this user totally altered the tone of the article. Look what it looked like before, and then after the edit. And then when the edit was removed. If you wrote a paper using this as a source, what sort of differing conclusions would you draw if you read the revised (inaccurate) article versus the original version?”Report

      • trizzlor in reply to morat20 says:

        @morat20 : You’d start by talking about accuracy, reliability, and rules-of-thumb …

        I think this is a really sensible as a general lesson plan, but in all of the coverage of this topic, I’ve yet to see anyone actually sit down with the district educators who came up with the assignment and ask them – in detail – what their overall intent here was. What did the students learn about the Holocaust prior the assignment? How were they educated on distinguishing real from fake sources? What was the purpose of including bullshit sources together with credible ones? What where teachers expected to do when students answered incorrectly? What kind of follow-up discussion was to happen after the assignment? Without knowing this context, the Tablet article may as well read “Teacher gives students true/false questions and some students answer incorrectly!“.

        One point I’ll push back on is the idea that this kind of analysis shouldn’t be linked with a Holocaust unit at all. The Denial movement is a crucial element of Holocaust history, not just in it’s scale and reach, but because it tells us about humanity *today* and links our current experience something in the past that is very difficult to comprehend. Kids should absolutely be learning about Denial and continued Jewish persecution, and it’s persistence around the world. They should be discussing how anyone – including some students participating in this assignment – can continue to believe such evil, and what their duty as human beings is to push back against it in all its forms. The typical American education on the Holocaust already pussyfoots around too much, basically outsourced to Schindler’s List and its Hollywood ending. They should be reading The Fixer, and The Diary of Anne Frank, and Night, and watching survivor testimonies. And then they should be reading Eichmann’s testimony, and interviews with Ahmadinejad, and statements by European nationalist leaders. If they’re capable of learning about the atrocity then they should be capable of learning about the denial; the two are just different outlets for the same driving force.Report

    • dhex in reply to trizzlor says:

      they were educated, accidentally, in how taboo functions in american culture.

      not bad for a public school. (unless it’s a charter school, in which case, “not bad for a charter school”)Report

  7. notme says:

    Let me guess, this was some common core nonsense?Report

  8. I’m not an expert on what 8th graders are and are not capable of learning, so I guess I’ll have to let the experts here have the final say. But here is what I expect is one dynamic at play that is perhaps related to, but I insist distinct from being incapable to engage in critical thinking:

    There is a certain level of assumed trust between teacher and student. The student, who otherwise might be willing to question a huge variety of things, trusts the teacher to provide information in good faith. The teacher(s) in this case did nowhere near the signalling necessary to convey that the denialist sources were lies and faulty logic and that it was okay, even obligatory to call that out.*

    Holocaust denialism is a real problem in this example that Saul is describing. It’s the main problem. But I think the “problem,” if it is a problem, that also lurks in this situation is the trust between teacher and student. It seems to me to have been violated in this case. (Disclosure: the link didn’t work for me, so I didn’t read the results.)

    It reminds me of a story I, as a kid, heard an adult relate with a “shouldn’t kids be ashamed of themselves” tone. He was telling how one teacher, somewhere, had announced to his students that everyone was going to soon switch to “metric” time, so that days would be 10 hours, hours would be 100 minutes, etc. With a “shouldn’t kids these days be ashamed of themselves for being so stupid” tone, he was pointing out how none of the kids in this mythical (I suppose) classroom even questioned whether the switch would happen. (Nor, presumably, did they question how such a day could account for the earth’s rotation.) If that story was true, it wasn’t, in my opinion, necessarily the children’s lack of reasoning skills, but the bad faith shown by the teacher.

    Maybe that’s all related to a lack of critical thinking skills among 14-year old’s. Again, we have some experts in “how the young learn” in this thread and they can affirm, negate, or accept as debatable what I say.

    *That’s a charitable interpretation. My less charitable interpretation is that the teachers, wittingly or no, but mostly wittingly, were indulging denialism by suggesting it’s a true “controversy” that needs to be taught.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      Excellent point, @gabriel-conroy . I was thinking of this myself but couldn’t quite put it into words. Asking a student — an 8th grader — to intuitively distrust resources provided by a teacher is really unfair. Students are often chastised for challenging a teacher (usually wrongly, I might add).

      If the students weren’t prompted that some of the information they were going to be given was false and that they should use other sources and prior learning to ferret out what was what, then they were essentially misled by the teacher and that trust — trust vital to the educational process — was violated.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Thanks, Kazzy. I do think that one element of what’s called “critical thinking” is the willingness to speak truth to power, so in a sense, challenging the teacher’s authority is probably part of it. It just takes a lot.Report

  9. Kolohe says:

    I wonder if there’s now been enough time and cultural amnesia for The Wave to work again as a lesson plan.Report

  10. Maria says:

    Back in the day when I taught high school, I used to teach a seminar on the Holocaust. Through that I found an organization called Facing History and Ourselves that works with teachers to develop curricula around issues of civil rights, intolerance, etc. Seems to me that this school district would be well served in calling them in to do some intensive workshops with the kids who were provided horrible guidance in navigating a seriously complex issue. I just do not understand how this district/school/teacher(s) were so completely short sighted when they developed this little exercise.Report