A high school teacher in Albany, NY gave 10th grade students the assignment to write an argument paper, using Nazi propaganda, describing why Jews were evil and to blame for German social problems. Here's the conversation my husband and I had about the assignment.
Ouisi: Okay, I think what's happening here is that this is a college-style thought assignment. In college people learn how to think. But this assignment was given to high school students in a public school, where people are used to the teachers telling them what to think. They aren't expecting to have to think critically and examine deep moral problems. Maybe it's the right assignment and the wrong group of people.
Patrick: This is an English class. It would make more sense in a History class, but this may be part of the teacher's attempt to draw connections between the different disciplines.
Ouisi: If we don't examine things like German nationalism closely, we can keep evil far away from us, foreign and alien, and not learn to recognize it in our own culture and in ourselves. So it is a good assignment.
Patrick: It's too close. Nazi Germany is too recent. The teacher should have picked something from further back in time--
Ouisi: --Like witch hunts. That's far enough removed from Western culture.
Patrick: Salem would have been a good assignment.
Nick Brino, a 10th grader, said he had heard about the assignment from a
classmate. “I thought it was wrong,” he said. “But she was flipping
out, saying if anyone was going to do it, she wasn’t going to be their
Ouisi: How clueless! Okay, this is the wrong group of people, which means that somebody really does need to get them thinking in the way that this teacher tried to. Maybe the actual attempt was ham-handed, not because of instructions for the assignment, which look great, but because the students weren't prepared enough to follow the thought process: "I am going to pretend to be a bad person, and see how easy it is to convince other people that 1) I really believe this stuff, and 2) This stuff is true."
Patrick: Is the boogeyman here that we are afraid of thinking the way that the Nazis did? Just by proximity to it. If we examine it, we'll catch Nazism, as if it's a virus. We're afraid of ending up thinking the way that they thought, so we don't even try to examine the historical and cultural context and the thought process of the people inside that context. We end up looking at a caricature of the Nazis, instead of talking about the real Nazis, how different factors impacted German culture and how the Nazis ultimately ended up controlling Germany.
Ouisi: So we end up with a timeline of history instead of an understanding of the human social reality of history.
Patrick: Take out the words "human" and "social" and just leave "the reality of history."
Ouisi: But you've studied history and so you have an understanding of that word that I don't have. As far as the public schools are concerned, "history" really is just a timeline.
Patrick: A sequence of events. But the discipline of history is trying to know the truth of what happened in the past.
Ouisi: The truth, as in more than just a list of the things that were done?
Patrick: Yeah, it's bigger than just a list of who/what/when/where/how. The most elusive and important questions that historians try to answer is "why."
Ouisi: And that "why" is the point of the writing assignment. But was there a better way to get that group of children asking those kinds of "why" questions of history?
What do you think? Was the assignment misguided? How should history be taught in public schools? How should morality and ethical thinking be taught?