I’ve been encouraged to say a bit more about yesterday’s blog post concerning the Albany teacher whose students were required to write a persuasive argumentative essay from the perspective of someone living in the Third Reich about why Jews are evil and are responsible for the problems faced by Germany in the 1930s.
On the face of it, the assignment seemed so obviously problematic to me that I didn’t spend a great deal of time outlining the problem. This led a few people to comment that there’s something very valuable about being forced to think about an abhorrent position. Some claimed the value was that it made us more tolerant of unpopular opinions; some claimed it encouraged free thinking rather than repetition.
All of this would be true, I think, when we’re talking about making an argument that defends an unpopular or controversial position. I ask my students to write papers about Marx’s critique of Locke on property or Burke’s critique of the concept of universal natural rights. I think there’s real value in thinking critically about radical challenges to liberalism, especially insofar as finding ways to respond to or even integrate some of those challenging ideas can strengthen or improve the way that we think about our society and its goals.
I think there’s no value, however, in thinking critically about or defending a lie. And that’s the crux of this high school English assignment, which is — again — to write a persuasive argument about why Jews are evil and are responsible for a country’s problems. Those aren’t unpopular opinions; they’re just lies. And to teach young people that there are ways to persuasively defend lies is simple sophistry. It’s not an exercise in toleration or liberal education or anything else; it’s just a bad assignment that tried to be edgy or interesting and failed because it wasn’t thought out very carefully. The example was bad, certainly, but so was the pedagogy behind it, namely the whole notion that using propaganda tactics is a good way to teach persuasive writing.
To go one step farther, let me also add that these particular lies are incredibly pernicious ones; they are lies that led to genocide. And they are the sorts of lies that persist. In other words, you don’t have to travel very far to encounter people who hold this position (about Jews) or others like it (about other minority groups). It’s one thing to say we ought to allow people to believe and to even say all manner of things that we find unpleasant or wrong-headed; it’s quite another to say we ought to allow intolerance, hatred, and lies to be taught to our children in our schools. There’s no reason for us to tolerate that; it doesn’t make us better liberals to laud these sorts of mistaken exercises in the name of open-mindedness or free thinking.
Students in some Albany High School
English classes were asked this week as part of a persuasive writing assignment to make an abhorrent argument: “You must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
Students were asked to watch and read Nazi propaganda, then pretend their teacher was a Nazi government official who needed to be convinced of their loyalty. In five paragraphs, they were required to prove that Jews were the source of Germany’s problems.
The exercise was intended to challenge students to formulate a persuasive argument and was given to three classes, Albany Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said. She said the assignment should have been worded differently.
“I would apologize to our families,” she said. “I don’t believe there was malice or intent to cause any insensitivities to our families of Jewish faith.”
One-third of the students refused to complete the assignment, she said.
There’s so much to say about this:
First, there’s the assignment. Isn’t it possible to teach students how to make a persuasive argument without using such a ridiculously awful example? And if you can’t think of a way to do this, aren’t you just a terrible teacher or an anti-Semite?
Second, there’s the apology. “The assigment shoud have been worded differently.” You think so? Like, it shouldn’t have used any of the words it used.
Third, there’s the heroism. 1/3 of the students who received the assignment refused to complete it. I wish the number was 2/3, but given the riskiness of simply refusing to do an assignment in high school, I’m surprised the number was even this high. They should hold an assembly that celebrates the choice made by these students.
HT: Michael Tofias, via April Murphy.
I’ve been following the story of this Berlin museum exhibit that puts various Jews into a box so visitors can ask them questions. And, unsurprisingly, I don’t like the concept.
The short version is that it seems on the one hand zoological and on the other hand reductionist. In other words, it seems to suggest that Jewish people can be put on display like chimpanzees so we can learn about them in a more comfortable environment for us and also that we can reduce what being Jewish means down to whatever these people’s idiosyncratic answers might be to the questions of curious museum patrons.
I find both of these notions obviously wrong-headed.
I don’t, however, think it’s wrong-headed that Germans should learn more about Jews or that they might benefit from interacting with a people that their forebears attempted to obliterate. I just think the mechanism is radically flawed … unless it’s meant ironically, to hold a mirror up to Germans and say something to them about the lack of Jews with whom they might interact. But isn’t that point already so obvious?
I should also say that I was a Jew (with a very Jewish name) who lived in Berlin for three months on a research fellowship in 2006, and who visited Berlin for at least another few months (to attend conferences and workshops for a week at a time, broken up over the course of about three years). Virtually no one with whom I interacted was Jewish and at no time did I feel like some sort of curiosity or that my (obvious, I think) Judaism was something about which Germans felt uncomfortable. Admittedly, the people with whom I regularly interacted were academics and, most of them, specifically were interested in the academic study of human rights. So there’s surely some self-selection going on with that group. But, still, walking around in Berlin, traveling in Germany, and speaking with Germans throughout the course of my day (at coffee shops, restaurants, and the like) never felt awkward in the way that this exhibit suggests it ought to have felt (and as some of the Jews who have written about sitting in the box claim to feel).
Forty two percent of Austrians think “not everything was bad under Hitler,” while 57% think “there was nothing positive about the Hitler era,” according to a poll conducted by newspaper Der Standard that was published on Friday.
The poll was conducted among 502 eligible voters in Austria and published ahead of the 75th anniversary of the country’s annexation by Nazi Germany.
54% answered that neo-Nazi groups would be successful in the Austrian elections, if there was no law banning them.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the vast majority of the 42% of Austrian respondents who think “not everything was bad under Hitler” weren’t alive when the Nazis annexed Austria.
I’m also going to take a guess that they haven’t spent much time speaking with Holocaust survivors since a) there aren’t many of them in Austria and b) there just aren’t many of them still alive today.
In fact, I’d say this is one of the most serious consequences that we will have to face in the coming years: As the “survivor generation” disappears, with it goes the irreplaceable first-hand personal narratives that speak directly to the depths of Nazi depravity. After that, all we have is history. And, as polls like this really highlight, history simply doesn’t adequately convey the horror of the Second World War and the Holocaust. If it did, 100% of Austrians would run screaming from questions like these.
In the meantime, however, any Austrians who want to hear more about how bad things were under Hitler can still contact me to arrange a chat with my grandparents.
Yesterday, with the help of Ken Walzer (a former college professor of mine), my family got ahold of several historical documents we’d never seen before.
They provide a record, albeit incomplete, of my grandfather’s internment in several Nazi concentration camps in the mid-1940s.
While we’ve always known about this part of our history, we didn’t really have much in the way of documentation. When I first mentioned that my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor on this blog, in a post about a visit I took to Buchenwald, people asked for more information. But all I knew were the few things my grandfather recalled about his brief time at Buchenwald. As I wrote to Walzer:
He said that he was only at Buchenwald for about a week, shortly after his 20th birthday, in late February 1945. He was born on February 3, 1925.
He was marched to Buchenwald by the SS and he was marched from Buchenwald about a week later. The prisoners there were building barracks into the hillside, he remembers, and when they would go out to work they would be in danger of being shot by Allied troops.
So, what have we learned?
First, we learned why it was difficult to find documentation on my grandfather. He was born in Vişeu de Sus, in Transylvania (now Romania). But he’s listed here as coming from Felsővisó, which is the Hungarian place name. We never checked under the Hungarian name, even though the territory was disputed for quite a long time and changed hands during my grandfather’s early life.
What’s more, his name is Zalman Kohen but he’s listed here as Zoltan Kahan. When we first started looking for documentation, we learned that there were no Z. Kohens or Z. Cohens on transport lists for Buchenwald in February 1945. But when I was visiting my grandparents two weeks ago, my grandmother mentioned that his family weren’t Kohens back in Europe; they were Kahans or Cahans. I mentioned this to Walzer, who wrote to a friend at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and we had these documents in 24 hours. Zalman or Zelman would be my grandfather’s Yiddish name; Zoltan would have been his Hungarian name. Sure enough, he is listed here as Hungarian Jewish Prisoner #137429 at Buchenwald in February 1945.
In addition, though we still don’t have transport information into Buchenwald, we now have transport information out. From Buchenwald, he was sent to SIII (Sonderbauvorhaben III or Ohrdruf) on March 14. It is likely to have been there that he saw prisoners building barracks, which might have been the never-completed Jonastal project. From there, he was sent to Flossenbürg on March 26.
Finally, with this information, it might be possible to more fully trace my grandfather’s journey through the Nazi camp system and to assign dates to his memories of that time. It opens up a whole new source of information for us and, for a family with so little information about so many relatives who were murdered, every scrap and every minute detail means a great deal.
I’ve written about the theory of restorative justice quite a lot, but I’m now able to more fully experience some of what I wrote and knew, intellectually, to be right: In the aftermath of a terrible tragedy, victims’ families are often left without any information about what happened and so creating an agreed upon historical record is an important part of achieving some measure of healing.
I haven’t been able to stop looking at these documents that showed up unannounced in my Inbox yesterday because they represent a key part of the history of my family, missing pieces of a puzzle I never really knew I needed to complete.
Germany’s education minister resigned Saturday after a university decided to withdraw her doctorate, finding that she plagiarized parts of her thesis — an embarrassment for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government as it prepares for elections later this year.
On Tuesday, an academic panel at Duesseldorf’s Heinrich Heine University voted to revoke Schavan’s doctorate following a review of her 1980 thesis, which dealt with the formation of conscience. The review was undertaken after an anonymous blogger last year raised allegations of plagiarism, which the minister denies.
“I will not accept this decision and will file suit against it — I neither copied nor deceived in my dissertation,” she told reporters, speaking alongside Merkel at a brief news conference. “The accusations, as I have said over the past weeks and months, hurt me deeply.”
This seems to happen an awful lot.
Admittedly, it’s pretty hard to write a dissertation … but a fair number of people manage to do it without passing off other scholars’ work as their own.
The UN General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, every member state of the UN has an obligation to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides. This year’s theme is Rescue during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care.
Coincidentally, my friend Scott Allison has an excellent profile of Chiune Sugihara up on his blog this week; it’s well worth reading in its entirety, but here’s the section that’s particularly relevant today:
In 1939 Chiune was then sent to the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania. On September 1st of that year Nazi Germany invaded Poland and the persecution of Jews began almost immediately.
By 1940 Jewish refugees from Poland and from within Lithuania itself began to seek ways to flee the country. This required visas and many countries were refusing to issue them. Japan itself had stringent requirements that the refugees did not meet. Chiune inquired to his superiors three times requesting instructions, but in all cases requests to issue the visas were declined.
It might have been easier to simply walk away and do nothing but instead, in July of 1940, against orders, Sugihara started issuing visas and even directly negotiated with officials of the Soviet Union to allow the refugees to pass through Russia on their way to Japan. He continued to write visas, reportedly spending 18-20 hours a day until September 4th when the Consulate was closed. During the night prior to the closing, Chiune and his wife Yukiko spent the entire night writing visas, and Chiune was reportedly even preparing them en route to the train station where he threw them out the window of the train to waiting refugees as it left the station. In a final act of desperation he resorted to throwing blank pages with the Consulate seal and his signature, which could be filled out later.
The exact number of Jews saved by Chiune Sugihara is not known but estimates put the number around 6,000.
It’s important to spend time thinking about people like Sugihara, who defied specific orders in order to assist those in need, and so it’s a very good thing that this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day is dedicated to them. Reflecting on the actions of those who acted on behalf of others, unlike most people around them, should encourage us to do the same in our daily lives, even if only in some small way.
The Top 5 Posts of 2012
As I did yesterday, I’m once again linking to the top blog posts of the year. These are the posts that drew the most unique eyeballs; the list doesn’t include the About page, where several thousand people each year go to find out whose writing they’re reading, the Ask page, where people write in with questions or to say kind and unkind things to me, or the front page, which is always the top draw since it’s the way that people access the site directly (rather than via some referring site). This year, Page 2 also drew enough viewers to crack the Top 10 but I haven’t included it below (as its content is always changing).
Perhaps you missed some of these posts. Or maybe you just want to have another look since it’s been a little while. Feel free, of course, to share them with friends and loved ones because each click tells me that you’d like for me to keep writing these sorts of things.
Here, then, are the Top 5 most viewed posts of 2012:
#5. I take Gov. Scott Walker to task for opposing everything the federal government does … except the disaster relief he needs (7/20/12)
#4. “The Problem of Online Anonymity,” a reflection on the unmasking of Reddit troll Violentacrez (10/14/12)
#3. A personal reflection on visiting the Buchenwald concentration camp (1/25/12)
#2. My thoughts on the Texts from Drone meme, which I found offensive and brimming with hypocrisy from the peace-loving libertarian Tumblr crowd (4/16/12)
#1. Mitt Romney’s new strategy — in the aftermath of his 47% comments — of just saying whatever people want to hear in order to improve his chances (10/5/12)
It’s been a fun and fascinating year of writing for me, full of arguments and thoughtful exchanges of ideas. I plan to have a brief reflection tomorrow that looks back at some of the things I learned from blogging this year and looks forward to 2013.
Thanks for reading, for engaging with my ideas, for sharing my blog posts with your friends, and for asking for my thoughts on issues or events as they’ve come up.
Happy New Year!
On our 40th episode of the Hero Report podcast, we’re joined by Michelle and Thorsten Werning from Bonn, Germany. Michelle shares her experiences presenting Matt’s heroic education program in Germany and France as well as her experiences bringing up boys in a military family. Thorsten shares his thoughts on heroism as a member of the Navy helicopter rescue group and as a German.
Tell us what you think about this episode, discuss these issues with us on Twitter (Matt Langdon / Ari Kohen), and join us every Friday at 4pm Eastern on Google+ for our live broadcast (where you can chat with us while we’re on the air and contribute to the conversation).
Want to make the podcast portable? Subscribe via iTunes (audio-only).
I wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago, responding to Brian Earp and Andrew Sullivan on the question of religious freedom in the wake of the anti-circumcision ruling handed down by a judge in Germany.
Earp read my post and kindly got in touch to inquire about the prospect of recording a debate about religious freedom, ethics, and rights.
This fifty minute video discussion is the result.
We covered a wide range of topics beyond the ones mentioned above, including how religious believers can make changes to religious practice over time and, importantly, the role played by Islamophobia in the circumcision debate.
Here is Earp’s wrap-up of our discussion:
We cover male and female genital cutting; Islam, Judaism, and Christianity; we talk about multiculturalism and religious belief; we share some personal stories; and we find some common ground. I think we figured out the places where we really do disagree, and were even surprised to find that our general views are not so different as they had seemed before.
I whole-heartedly agree; it was a very enjoyable experiment in video blogging.
As a long-time fan of Bloggingheads, which really pioneered this way of debating political and philosophical concepts online, I hope to find opportunities to do more of these sorts of diavlogs in the future on a wide range of topics.
I hope you’ll let me know what you think.