Holocaust Assignment Questions: Why Not?*

controversy* For the record: I view as facts human-driven climate change, evolution, and the unspeakable calamity of the Holocaust. I view Holocaust denial and xenophobia as indefensible. Just saying.

But onto the post.

In Rialto Unified School District in California, test officials apologize profusely for misguided critical thinking assignments quoting Holocaust denial text. 

The editor and publisher of Talking Points Memo basically assures us that the teachers involved were anti-Semites, because he grew up near Southern California.

In Chicago, elementary school immigrant students  debate the path to citizenship in the US on a standardized test that allegedly uses fake “conservative” xenophobic text. This blogger, and other edufolk I deeply respect, call this racist.

Whoa.

So: is an exam, or detailed writing assignment, the place to require students to deal with issues like Holocaust denial and xenophobia?

There’s some very strong reasons to say a big fat “no,” many of which have been voiced this past week. One of them is whether subjects such as these are developmentally or socially appropriate for kids who may be personally involved in them. (The Rialto assignment was given to kids in 8th grade. Chicago’s population of ESL students stood at 15.8% in 2013.)

But the largest concern, as far as I can tell, is that since a summative exam or writing assignment is a place where an assessor’s personal views are not supposed in any way to determine the outcome, it is the exam or assignment’s implicit message that it is possible to pull together a cogent argument on either side of the issue at hand.

In cases such as global warming denial, creationism, or Holocaust denial, then, there is a radical enough concern about the factual basis of these stances that including them on an exam is viewed as implicitly stating that one view is equal in its weight to the other– false balance. In fact, that concern is radical enough that most people deny there is any real controversy involved in these issues at all.

(And thank you, John Oliver, for taking my call and developing this skit you aired last night just to support my blog post. Great party last week too. Latte soon, ok?)

False balance, and dealing sensitively with little ones or adolescents who hold or are exposed to problematic views, are huge, huge problems. As a result confronting such issues with grace, respect and evidence is arguably the place of a well-guided classroom, not an exam or a graded assignment.

On the other hand…

1) Our American exams and assignments have historically been completely arbitrary exercises in meaninglessness. (Ironically, this is one of the criticisms being made as we speak about Common Core-aligned math assessments.) So in our race to be culturally sensitive and factually-based, are we in danger of automatically shutting down assessments that are finally taking up matters of relevance and worth?

(Check out this report, which points out that possibly one fifth of people in the US possess some kind of indifference towards Jews and the Holocaust. One. fifth. I won’t even talk about the amount of people in the US who think we should close our borders.)

Think about the quantum leap in relevance that represents in terms of academic content. Dude, does no one remember the pineapple?

2) A side effect of the democratizing of voice in American media is the ability, frankly, for any damn person to say any damn thing and have it look pretty in a blog post– if not transmitted to the millions through Twitter. I include my own work in this.

Our students live in an information age where  possessing and understanding the power of logic and argument in real life situations is not optional. The need for it suffuses nearly everything our students see and hear. To put a relevant and controversial subject on an exam or an important assignment, then, delivers the message that American education understands this reality, and privileges the ability to make and carry a cogent argument. Would that Congress would do the same.

(By the way: “I lived near Southern California, so I am qualified to comment on this story” is a version of the Appeal to Irrelevant Authority. Page 14.)

Yeah, so we may suck at dealing with controversy on our assessments right now. I sucked at teaching in my first year too. And my fourth. You learn, you get up, you move forward. I trust our teachers, our best test writers, to do this.

And finally, 3) consider this:

Whatever you believe about climate change deniers, xenophobes, or creationists: these people exist. Their arguments exist. And furthermore, they are believed: every single day.  They affect education, national policy, and most importantly, real people: namely, our kids.

We need to teach our students to be able to answer their arguments. We need to teach them to take these stances head on with perseverance, compassion, evidence and cheer: not tap out by saying that they are too controversial to put on a high stakes exam, or that our students are too fragile to handle writing about them.

We need to show students that we trust them and value them enough to tackle the events and beliefs that affect their very lives.

Trust me: there is nothing higher stakes than that.