Mirror of Justice

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Why the "Nazi essay" teacher was wrong (and why he wasn't)

I've been a little uncomfortable with the uproar against the Albany teacher who assigned his students to write a persuasive essay from the Nazi perspective that Jews are evil.  Yes, given our history, the particular conclusion assigned was bound to shed more heat than light no matter how noble the teacher's intentions were, with foreseeable harm to members of the community.  And more broadly, any such assignment is very problematic if not done in a context where the objectives were obvious and there were an entire series of projects through which the students were asked to assume counterintuitive positions.  I also have doubts as to whether such an assignment could be pulled off smoothly with such a young age group.  However, I also agree with Ken Kersh's point that simply asking students to adopt a moral conclusion:

deprives students of a deep understanding of how it is that people can actually hold those views, and still go to church and sleep well at night -- to understand themselves to be doing the right thing. Besides making students shallower people where it comes to understanding history and political and social thought, it make them shallower in the understanding of themselves: only by seeing how odious and unjust ideas issue from sophisticated and powerful logics (typically in conjunction with intense emotions), can they begin to feel the necessity of continually examining themselves, asking how in their own time and place they might be following similar logics and scripts, both time-tested and new. Learning how others think –- including badly -- is a critical part of learning to think effectively themselves.

When I teach our Foundations of Justice course, I ask students to argue both sides of the abortion issue -- not because I want them to conclude that moral truth is in the eye of the beholder, but because I believe that they will be better advocates when they have put themselves in the shoes of those who oppose their views.  Now assigning to high schoolers a proposition that demonizes a religious minority is a much different notion than a case law-driven exercise in advocacy for law students, and so I agree with those who question the high school teacher's prudence in selecting that particular topic, but I'm leery of any emerging tendency to equate categorically the assigned content with the pedagogical objective. 

http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2013/04/why-the-nazi-essay-teacher-was-wrong-and-why-he-wasnt.html

Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Comments

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I think Kersh was a tad harsh to the critics, but high school students do need to look at the mindset of people who are very bad actors, including slaveowners. They have to understand things thru the eyes of people they will find horrible. They will find that some of these people are among them (if not as horrible as Nazis and slaveowners), so it's a good lesson to learn.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 15, 2013 11:34:41 AM

Rob, thank you for your very thoughtful post. I have been thinking about this matter. While I am not sure how I feel about it, in the process of working on the answer I have come up with a question, adumbrated by Joe's comment above.

The question is: what would be the reaction if a teacher assigned a paper requiring that the students take a plantation owner's perspective on slavery based on a comparison between the races? If the response is that such an assignment would be inconceivable, it seems to me that the actual assignment in this situation should have been inconceivable as well.

In other words, is there a higher comfort level because the assignment involved Jews? If so, we have a huge problem, and it would certainly affect my response to the overarching question.

Posted by: Ellen Wertheimer | Apr 15, 2013 12:40:27 PM

If the assignment is inconceivable, it would be problematic. I understand the consistency concern -- that's fair. But, both should be conceivable.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 15, 2013 2:01:13 PM

If the assignment is inconceivable, it would be problematic. I understand the consistency concern -- that's fair. But, both should be conceivable.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 15, 2013 2:01:13 PM

I think that, unfortunately, to ask almost any diverse group, and particularly high school age people, to engage in this intellectual exercise, while probably well meaning on the part of the teacher who did it, is to invite a certain number of them to get in touch with their inner anti-Semite rather than to bring them to some kind of realization of how the Nazis could have been so depraved.

As to Ellen Wertheimer's question, I don't see any comfort level at all with the assignment the way it was given, and I don't think there would have been any comfort level with an assignment that explored racism rather than anti-Semitism.

I don't know the particulars of this case, but just in general, I think we have to think of ways of dealing with those who have made mistakes on the job short of firing them. In this age of Facebook, Twitter, etc., what would have been local controversies involving small numbers of people now become nationwide firestorms, and the easiest way out for an employer is to fire anyone who becomes the focus of a controversy. Firing is to employment what execution is to living. If someone who is otherwise doing a good job gets caught up in one of these controversies, their fate should not be decided by social media, but by the people most directly involved, ignoring as best they can outside pressure. (Of course, as in the case of Mike Rice at Rutgers, sometimes the outside pressure is warranted.)

Posted by: David Nickol | Apr 15, 2013 2:37:53 PM

Stanley Fish discusses this in a column mainly devoted to the fuss over the classroom exercise in which students were asked to write "Jesus" on a piece of paper and step on it.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/15/stepping-on-jesus/?hp

Posted by: David Nickol | Apr 16, 2013 12:36:01 AM

It seems to me that it would be very difficult to come up with a persuasive argument if one's argument is not grounded in truth, in fact, one would have to use "deceptive persuasive arguments", in the form of propaganda, and if the teacher, as facilitator, is not able to adequately address this deception, one may end up strengthening unbelief, rather than belief, which serves to undermine truth.

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 16, 2013 11:09:13 AM

It seems to me that it would be very difficult to come up with a persuasive argument if one's argument is not grounded in truth, in fact, one would have to use "deceptive persuasive arguments", in the form of propaganda, and if the teacher, as facilitator, is not able to adequately address this deception, one may end up strengthening unbelief, rather than belief, which serves to undermine truth.

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 16, 2013 11:09:14 AM

Actually, what is missing from a great deal of the discussion of the issues today is the ability to understand the position of those with whom we disagree. We are very good at throwing daggers at what we think our opponents are saying or at straw men who make very easy targets. It is more important to "score points" than to find the truth. The intellectually honest approach to debate is to take the time to explore and accurately analyze an alternate viewpoint and address the points of disagreement. Was not this the approach of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica? Because such a process is foreign to most of our students, and probably most of our culture, the classroom exercise in question, sprung out of the blue as it was, seems inappropriate and weird. Had such critical analysis of rhetoric been more commonplace, the exercise could have proved fruitful

Posted by: Denise Hunnell, MD | Apr 17, 2013 10:51:04 AM

Dr. Hunnel, with all due respect, some viewpoints are simply not worthy of respect, which is why this assignment was inappropriate, to begin with.

Posted by: Nancy | Apr 17, 2013 4:47:12 PM