There is a news story going around these days and it has me thinking so I'd like to take a moment or three and work through it here. If you are uninterested in current events then move on. I don't need your pity. I like it but don't need it.
A teacher in New York is on the verge of getting fired because he asked his students to write an essay based on propaganda and anti-semitic content. His assignment was to have students see argument from an unfamiliar and, yes, uncomfortable point of view and yet, follow proper rhetorical practice and employ mode of logic in order to prove a point.
I see this from a few different sides as I do most things, but, for once in my life, I feel like I have actual expertise here so my opinion might actually be, I don't know, "good."
I'm a rabbi. I'm a proponent of the 1st amendment. I am a high school English teacher. I'm like the perfect storm of ideas for this situation. So I'm wading in, baby.
As a Jew, and one who has experienced modern anti-semitism, I fear a next generation of hatred. The scourge of Nazism, classical and neo (in all its forms) threatens progress and coexistence and leads people into violence. In a word or a few, I don't like it. Mandating that students work through Nazi content forces them to be exposed to ideas which might take hold in the weak minded and appear reasonable, and influence future behavior. Students can't always separate fact from lies, even when told what is "truth" by the teacher. So to ask students to think like a Nazi sympathizer is a problem -- it opens the accuser's mouth, giving those who are looking for a way to hate, a way to hate.
But as a teacher, I know the value of asking students to do something difficult -- to confront established norms of thought and work beyond them. There is no challenge for a student to write from a perspective he holds; critical thinking comes from asking students to work away from what they know. I often create essay topics and demand that students argue the unpopular side. Sure, I often keep the topics based in literature, but I have been known to dabble in mass culture. I can see asking students to argue FOR gun control and then argue AGAINST it. I can understand that if a student already knows the issues and his feelings, he will not be forced to incorporate research because he will write from his knowledge base.
I also know that, especially in the safe and relatively sheltered environment of a classroom, we should be allowing students to explore even unpopular ideas. If we don't, we create a situation where they never confront the popular view and never get a nuanced, guided tour through contrary ideas. When they do then see opposing views in real life, they will be unprepared to see themes, spot underlying trends or critique methodologies. The assignment, in that light, is actually a really good one. Sounds crazy to say, but it demands real reading comprehension, suspension of preconceived notions, application of skills and real analysis. Isn't this just what we want from students?
Yes, it is distasteful. Yes, it is insensitive, I guess (but only if it is done poorly and without context or explanation). But it is not automatically a problem any more than asking students to argue the unpopular side of any historical or philosophical situation. Arguing how immorality can be defended rationally is, to my mind, sound pedagogy both on the level of the thought exercise and the development of rhetorical awareness and skill. Having students write a newspaper article which would be suited to a conservative outlet and then a liberal one will make students more aware of bias and how it is couched in apparently neutral language. It makes students masters of thinking and expression, not just robots slavishly accepting a dominant paradigm without understanding that other points of view can mask themselves as convincing in the sheep's clothing of the "reasonable."
So will I give that particular assignment? No. Will its condemnation contribute to the freezing effect on everything from expression in general to innovative classroom approaches in specific? Yes. The trick here is HOW something is taught, not just THAT it is mentioned. A math assignment using whippings and murder of slaves as variables is significantly more problematic as there is nothing integral to the skill being learned that requires the invocation of hatred, violence and slavery. But if the object lesson requires that students be able to defend even the most egregious thought process using select sources (a lesson with more than one practical and useful skill developed) then we must expose the students to the unpopular content.
I'm a rabbi -- a pretty involved Jew who holds the phrase "never again" near and dear to my heart. But I also know that the most inoffensive content can do more to undermine thinking skills when used by an inept teacher than offensive content can when employed by a skilled instructor. Reacting to content without regard as to use, simply because someone is offended ties the hands of effective instructors. Students cannot then consider how the south could have endorsed slavery, or how the Chinese could have defended a cultural purge in pursuit of their own sense of propriety. We don't learn to think like others to become others. We learn to understand how others think so we can recognize when it is beginning to happen again. How can I object to and argue effectively against the registration of Jews in Hungary without seeing the history and past arguments in defense of registering European Jews?
Sometimes I need to think a mile in another man's shoes to be able to head him off at the past.