Once again, gentle readers, a story about teachers that makes me potentially ashamed to be a teacher. I trust it will not be surprising to learn that it comes from California. 

Dead women litter a floor at Auschwitz

Dead women litter a floor at Auschwitz

The Rialto school district planned to revise an eighth-grade assignment that raised red flags by asking students to consider arguments about whether the Holocaust — the systematic killing by the Nazis of some 6 million Jews and millions of others — was not an ‘actual event’ but instead a ‘propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain.’

In a statement released Monday, a spokeswoman for the Rialto Unified School District said an academic team was meeting to revise the assignment.

Interim Superintendent Mohammad Z. Islam was set to talk with administrators to ‘assure that any references to the holocaust ‘not occurring’ will be stricken on any current or future Argumentative Research assignments,’ a statement from district spokeswoman Syeda Jafri read.

‘The holocaust should be taught in classrooms with sensitivity and profound consideration to the victims who endured the atrocities committed,’ Jafri said.

One would think so, however, the assignment was not quite so sensitive:

The English/Language Arts assignment, first reported Sunday by the San Bernardino Sun and provided to KTLA by the newspaper, asked students to write an argumentative essay about the Holocaust describing ‘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.’

The 18-page assignment instructions included three sources that students were told to use, including one that stated gassings in concentration camps were a ‘hoax’ and that no evidence has shown Jews died in gas chambers.

‘With all this money at stake for Israel, it is easy to comprehend why this Holocaust hoax is so secretly guarded,’ states the source, which is a attributed to a webpage on biblebelievers.org.au. ‘In whatever way you can, please help shatter this profitable myth. It is time we stop sacrificing America’s welfare for the sake of Israel and spend our hard-earned dollars on Americans.

I’m sure the school district immediately did the right thing…well, not immediately…

The school district initially defended the assignment, with Jafri saying it was meant to engage students in ‘critical thinking.’

The district’s ‘CORE team’ planned meet to revise the assignment, Jafri said in her statement provided to KTLA on Monday.

‘This was a mistake. It should be corrected. It will be corrected,’ Jafri said in an interview. ‘We all know it was real. The Holocaust is not a hoax. … I believe our classroom teachers are teaching it with sensitivity and compassion.

As one might expect, the Common Core is involved:

The Common Core State Standards, adopted by most U.S. states including California, include writing standards that seek to have students make arguments and defend their answers based on texts they have read, among other goals.

Hmm. One might think that without the Common Core, kids never before had to “make arguments and defend their answers based on texts they have read, among other goals.” Golly but this Common Core is advanced! Before the Common Core no English teacher would have ever thought of doing that!

I’m continually amazed by supposedly intelligent, educated people shooting themselves in the metaphorical feet. If one is inclined to give the educators involved the benefit of the doubt, one might believe that this was an attempt to urge students to realize that Holocaust denial is a foolish and illegitimate attempt to deny the nature of evil, to ignore fact and to rewrite history. There are, however, three major problems with extending that particular benefit of the doubt.

The first is that assignments asking students to ignore the existence of historical fact–and the Holocaust is fact–are not only confusing to students, but intellectually irrational and educationally incompetent.

Eighth grade students are not nearly sufficiently intellectually developed and sophisticated to understand that a teacher is subtly encouraging them to question, indeed to defy, what they will have no choice but to identify as the very premise of the assignment. Some of them, merely due to the law of averages, would take the position that the Holocaust occurred, but some significant portion of the kids would believe that since the assignment suggested the Holocaust was a fabrication and “evidence” was provided to that effect, their teachers were encouraging them to accept that view and their grades would depend upon it. There would be no critical thinking, merely kids working to get a grade and doing what they think their teacher obviously wants.

More, the assignment provided what many kids—remember, these are 8th graders, kids only 12-13 years old—would consider authoritative and convincing evidence to support a “Holocaust as propaganda” thesis. If the teacher gives us this information—they would reason—they must want us to spout it back.

One of the primary aphorisms I’ve always taken to heart is that I must never underestimate my student’s intelligence, but I should never overestimate their information. Even my students—sophomores in high school 15-16 years old—would easily fall prey to this assignment. Most have heard of the Holocaust, but most are unable to discuss or explain it in any significant way. Some would know many people died, and fewer would know those that died were Jews, but that’s about it. For kids, unless it happened in the last week, history blurs together. Ancient Greece differs only from the 1970s—perhaps—only in that the Greeks wore bed sheets.  Kids are not dumb; they just don’t know.

Sophomores are also very susceptible to manipulation by teachers and other authority figures. Imagine how easily influenced 8th graders are. The 2-3 years difference in their ages is actually an enormous gap in information and development. One does not inspire “critical thinking” by using assignments far above the intellectual, developmental capacity of kids and by encouraging them to misinterpret and misunderstand fact.

The idea that the Holocaust should be taught with “sensitivity and compassion” is nonsense. It should be taught with accuracy and gravity.  There is no sugar-coating the systematic murder of millions.  It is not a matter of honoring “diversity” or pandering to any minority, it is a matter of ensuring that we do not, by failing to accurately remember history and learn its lessons, doom ourselves to repeat it.

A true critical thinking assignment on this topic might provide primary sources, including the statements of the American soldiers that liberated the death camps and saw the mass graves, charred skeletons in the ovens, the poison gas showers, and other incontrovertible evidence. Perhaps the statements of the Jewish survivors of the camps and their families might be useful? Perhaps actual German documents would be convincing? Transcripts of the Nuremberg trials of Nazis involved in the final solution might also be worthwhile. In presenting the Holocaust properly–as fact–explaining why it happened, who was responsible, the banality of evil, and its effect on the world, the assignment would legitimately ask students to explain why, given evidence no rational person can possibly ignore or deny, substantial numbers of people continue to claim the Holocaust never occurred.

Such an assignment would not only be based in fact, it would require research and analysis of the arguments—such as they are–of those who refuse to accept fact and evidence. It would encourage students to discover what motivates people to deny evil, even to assist it, and in so doing, would help to guarantee that history will not repeat itself.

That would constitute real learning rather than manipulation. That would require real critical thinking rather than the inculcation of politically correct, anti-intellectual tripe.  Unfortunately, even that assignment is probably too complex for 8th graders.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the “Common Core” is that some people—I can’t be sure that’s the case here—use it as justification for political indoctrination rather than the professional presentation of competent material. Theoretically, that’s possible with virtually any set of standards, but it seems a common, core tactic with the Common Core, and when such “assignments” come to light, they’re invariably biased to the left. At least, I’ve yet to find an example of right wing indoctrination associated with the Common Core.

Interesting coincidence, that.