Saturday, April 13, 2013

Godwin's Writing Assignment

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 friend.”  

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?


  1. That sort of assignment is the one that comes after a reading of "Ordinary Men." It sounds like the teacher didn't do particularly much prep, to lead in, and this particular subject comes a little later than high school. You're also right in that the Salem Witch Trials would've been both more age appropriate and a better lesson plan.

    1. So you think that the teacher was enamored with the assignment and wanted to have fun with it, when it would have been best to give an assignment that would have set the groundwork for those students to tackle this difficult subject later on?

  2. I think a more kosher assignment would have been to examine the evidence of 1930's propaganda, and then write a persuasive paper to the Nazi government explaining why Jews were NOT evil or the source of the Third Reich's problems. That, to me, is a benevolent way to engage the mindset of Nazism while, at the same time, finding the faults of the Nazi mindset and exposing them in an persuasive way.

    1. Kosher. ARGH.

      It would help the students to analyze the flaws in Nazi thought, but wouldn't they be arguing against Nazism using their 21st-century American hindsight? Patrick says that "It's very easy to condemn something that's external to your time and space. It's harder to condemn something when you're occupying the same time and space as the problem. So it's valuable for us to be critical, because we have knowledge that the people in that time didn't have. But if we want to explore how those people understood themselves, we need to try not to take our own perspective into the exercise."

  3. "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." — Aristotle

    I do think the Salem Witch Trials are a little too simplistic and poorly documented for an assignment about them to encourage critical thinking. But, perhaps I'm not familiar enough with them.

    Reading "Animal Farm" is a good high school level way to start to defend against ideology and thus carve out a space for critical thinking.

    It would probably also help if students had some practice arguing for assigned topics that were less fraught. So, divide them evenly and have them write about something like whether another class's field trip should be to A or B. That has the bonus quality of talking about the fate of real people, but a low risk of conflict of interest, and it's not too weighty.

    At that point they might be ready for Godwin's writing assignment. I like Johnson's suggestion above that they write a paper to the Nazi government explaining why Jews were NOT evil or the source of the Third Reich's problems. Maybe split the class the other way and assign half of them that and the other half the opposite.

  4. I really like assignments like this in theory even if in execution it did not seem to work in this time. I remember when I was in school a kid asking why anyone would believe the Nazi rhetoric and teacher giving a really bad answer, something to the effect of "they were tricked". I think the idea of showing students that, if something is said right anything can be rationalized to be good, is something worth teaching so that the students will look past what is being said in to the deeper meaning behind the words. Since, if we take my teachers rational, it would imply that the all of the German people were tricked by the Nazis rather than the Nazis twisting reality and presenting it in such a way that seemed real to the people of Germany even those who were quite bright. At the end of the day I think using the Nazis for the assignment would have been the most appropriate if this were a history class since one of the most powerful tools that the Nazis used was their words and propaganda, and getting the students to see how powerful of a tool that can be is a good lesson so as to avoid the trap of saying that the all of the Germans were “tricked”. Since this was an English class a fictitious group would have been better, maybe tie the assignment to 1984 and have the paper be why the Oceanian, Eurasian or Eastasian's were evil and needed to be destroyed. This way you get the argument for an evil part of the assignment without it being a real evil and you tie it so something that you read in class.

    1. I love that idea! Using a fictional history as the context for the assignment, which would also help the students to understand the book better.

  5. I watched Metropolis for the first time a few months ago (with the footage rediscovered in 2010) and was really impressed. It was Hitler's favorite movie, and I can see why. It presents a really compelling story in support of fascism. Fascism isn't necessarily anti-Semitic, and race isn't a major theme of the movie, but fascism prepares a society well for any coordinated genocide.

    I would hesitate before showing it to a high schooler. It's one thing to be able to identify logical flaws, and quite another to be able to identify emotional and aesthetic manipulation in the course of a narrative, perhaps especially when the whole thing is fiction. I figure the more propaganda I study, though, the better I'll get at identifying it for what it is.

    1. Ooh, interesting. We've had Metropolis on our Netfix queue for a long time and keep nudging it down in favor of fluffier stuff as it reaches the top.

    2. Oh, and somebody gave us a copy of "The Little Red Hen" to read to Sophia, and that's when Patrick discovered that it's Austrian economic propaganda.