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Lessons from the Holocaust Denial Essay Disaster

Auschwitz-BirkenauA school assignment came into the news recently regarding a controversial essay. 8th grade students in California’s Rialto Unified School District were given an essay assignment in which they had to argue whether the Holocaust was a real event or a hoax. The students were given documents on each side of the argument to use in their case’s defense.

Understandably, this assignment has created an outpouring of anger and disgust from the public. The Anti-Defamation League has voiced its objection and contacted the district. Parents and advocates are outraged. The superintendent has even received death threats. The assignment is being called everything from foolish to dangerous and anti-Semitic. The Board of Education has acknowledged the inappropriateness of the assignment, apologized, and returned it back to the teachers to rewrite.

The topic:

When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence. For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. Based upon your research on this issue, write an argumentative essay, utilizing cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain. Remember to address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim. You are also required to use parenthetical (internal) citations and to provide a Works Cited page.”

I’m going to go into this with the assumption that the Rialto Unified Board of Education is not a pack of raving anti-Semites with the insidious goal of turning students into raving anti-Semites. If they are, well, then reason goes out the window. But having worked in education, I can reasonably predict that what happened was a gross misjudgment, a seriously bad question written with good intent but terrible delivery.

The intent of the assignment is, I would think, to lead students to see that the Holocaust Denial movement is ill-founded and false. The essay itself, though, is inappropriate for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that Reality vs. Hoax is not a legitimate debate. The Holocaust happened. It is real; there is nothing to debate. But to conspiracy theorists, any evidence in their favor is touted and any evidence against them is declared to be fabricated. How could anyone win an argument against someone like that?

For an argumentative essay topics to be fair, the two sides must both have equal weight. In an essay about whether or not students should wear uniforms, for example, arguments both logical and emotional could be made for either side. But Holocaust Reality vs. Hoax is not a debate. There IS no debate. If you give students two documents supporting and two opposing a claim, but don’t tell them that in fact there are millions of photographs, videos, personal testimonies, physical scars, embedded tattoos, and missing loved ones as proof of the Holocaust, it sets up an artificial equality for the grounds of debate.

Compounding this is the fact that most 8th grade students lack the critical skills to engage this topic meaningfully. In many cases, 8th grade is their first exposure to the Holocaust. Give them a debate and they will accept uncritically the grounds for that debate.

In my own class of 8th graders, students are reading Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a standard text for this age. To ensure the students would appreciate Frank’s testimony, I spent nearly two weeks sharing with them information about anti-Semitism, the causes and events of the Holocaust, individual stories of different victims, and a broader exploration of how prejudice leads to discrimination which leads to violence and genocide. For most of my students, this was their first engagement with the Holocaust, and they craved to know more.

A few of my students did “independent research” on Google and came across a number of Denial websites. They tried to argue with me about the compelling evidence they saw. They said it made a lot of sense to them. I attempted to explain to them how conspiracy theories work, and that these loonies explain away any evidence against them. They seemed unconvinced, and the exchange has left me troubled.

Back to the Rialto Unified fiasco, I won’t try and relieve the administration of responsibility. The essay assignment was terrible. But as an educator, I can make a few guesses as to what happened. First of all, the essay is surely an attempt to create a Common Core-aligned essay. For those not in education, the Common Core is a set of nationalized educational standards that nearly every state has adopted. Every state, district, supervisor, and teacher is being pressured (professionally and financially) to implement them. And the Holocaust Denial essay was designed to be in alignment with Core standards, specifically regarding critical thinking skills and use of primary source documents.

More than likely, here is the scenario that occurred: the district mandated that the Language Arts department develop a document-based essay question for all 8th grade students. A group of teachers, likely already overtaxed and harried with responsibilities, formulated the question in question. How they came up with this prompt, I can’t say. Maybe they dashed it off, just another item on a to-do list that wasn’t given appropriate consideration. Maybe they thought they were being bold and provocative. Maybe they thought that this essay would help students see the futility of Holocaust Denial. In any case, the question is bad. Which happens. No teacher bats 1.000.

But then the prompt was surely rubber-stamped by supervisors, principals, and Board of Education members, all of whom had more pressing duties than discussing middle school essay questions. By the time someone looked up and said, “What the hell?”, news and social media had already done that for them. And by the district’s own acknowledgement, the problem was a lack of internal checks and balances.

What can we learn from this?

What I have learned is that teaching students about Holocaust Denial might be an important component of teaching them about the Holocaust itself. If I don’t address that some of the “information” out there is actually garbage, they might stumble on it and believe it.

And what can the field of education learn? Perhaps the lesson is that without taking a little time to check each other’s work, bad ideas can be greenlit and taken too far. Perhaps the lesson is that without giving students context, their learning is at best hampered and at worst entirely misguided. Or perhaps the lesson is that when contrived and artificial questions are created for the sole purpose of assessing students by some arbitrary standards, bad things result.

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