Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hitler wuz mean

Sometimes the flashcard marathon must stop for a moment, for a chance to catch up with the blogosphere while eating Reece's Pieces and chasing an Orens coffee with a diet Coke.

Via Rita, a fantastically ridiculous Weekly Standard article suggesting we scrap public education entirely. And via Gawker, an equally absurd New York Observer piece that leaves one thinking private schools should be banished from our land.

As much as I love that the head of New York's posh Lycee Francais was called "Little Napoleon" in an angry anonymous letter, I will focus instead on David Gelertner's oh-so-original rant about public schools and all the lefty crap they teach the kids these days. As with all such whines, there's a glimmer of truth--I attended school in this country in the height of the PC 1990s--and a whole lot of nostalgic cliche. The angle he takes is that we should get rid of public schools altogether because they lean too much to the left. How brilliant and, dare I say, practical! I am at this very moment holding my breath.

You might argue that the solution is to have two varieties of public school, roughly "moderate left" and "moderate right," each with its own curriculum, textbooks, and standards, and its own version of a worldview or moral framework to teach children. Every neighborhood or local region would vote on left versus right local schools. In many areas such elections would be extraordinarily hard-fought and bitter--yet the solution might work, except that the school establishment's bias is so consistently left (and not moderate left either) that it seems unlikely we could trust it to operate "moderate right" schools--or even "neutral" schools, if there were such a thing.

That's the only problem he can forsee, that the remaining schools would still teach Things Fall Apart and Heather Has Two Mommies? The better question: do five-year-olds have politics? Do high schoolers necessarily share the politics of their parents? Isn't the point of public school that whatever nonsense your parents teach you, you will learn a new and contradictory form of nonsense from your teachers and a third one from your peers, thus forcing you, the individual, to make decisions on your own?

Many urban schools were overcrowded, especially as more and more immigrants piled in. Segregated schools for blacks were often miserable. Yet throughout America--rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural--schools in general and teachers in particular were regarded with respect. And America's various creeds and colors agreed on the fundamental skills and principles with which a child should be equipped.

As with all arguments that begin with, 'Segregation was bad, but...', this one fails to inspire the wistful mood the author intends. For Gelernter, parents willing to go to jail to defend their child's right to grow up homophobic are demonstrating "courage and persistence." And yes, teaching schoolchildren that their classmates' same-sex parents are sinners is homophobic. Are the faithful not asked to find sin frightening? And then, because discussion of Jewish matters must always be put in parentheses, so as not to force the reader to hear too much about those whiny Jews, the following:

(A related dispute arises when schools insist on teaching young children about the Holocaust in all its revolting evil. Sensitive children get nightmares, are scared of going to bed--I've seen this happen in my own family. Yes, American children must be taught about the Holocaust--but intelligently, dammit, with some regard for the child's own well-being. Children are not mere adults in miniature. We are supposed to have outgrown that primitive idiocy sometime in the 19th century. But it has returned to plague us in America's dim-witted schools establishment. Evidently common sense is another divisive issue in modern America.)

Oh the poor babies! Let's try, "The Nazis were Germans who did not celebrate Chanukah," and leave it at that. I don't remember a time before I knew about the Holocaust "in all its revolting evil" (although most of the Vichy historiography I had to wait for grad school for; thanks a lot, kindergarten!) and yes, I did get nightmares. And that's exactly the reaction you have to learning about the Holocaust if you are, in fact, learning about it.


Glenn said...

There's a quote on one of the main buildings of my college, and I forget who said it, that goes

"all education is political."

Everything you chose to teach or not to teach, and every choice you make about how to teach a subject, is a political statement reflecting on the values and agendas of the surrounding society.

Phoebe said...

I thought it was, "everything is political," period.

Rita said...

I sympathize with his complaint that it's not necessary or useful to teach five year-olds about the Holocaust since they have approximately no conception of politics and very little capacity to understand it; I just don't think it's relevant to his article.

I didn't know about the Holocaust until fourth or fifth grade, and I still managed to become a reasonably educated person. Moreover, when I was taught about it, it was as part of some unit on prejudice and stereotyping, and the implication was that Holocausts resulted from "ignorance" and every time you "judged" other people, you were contributing to the next genocide. I doubt that portraying the Holocaust as a universal and imminent result of bullying your classmates is more effective than waiting to teach it in some sort of political and historical context to students who have some concept of political life.

Phoebe said...


I agree that it's not relevant to the rest of his article--is it the left or the right advocating early Holocaust education?

I'm not sure if I agree that the Holocaust should be taught in the context of politics. It might be better to first have a visceral sense of what evil looks like before entering a rational, emotionless study of how the world works. And to be a bit of a ranting conservative myself, I'd say it's optimistic to think all students will get to a point in school where they are learning about history and politics at any worthwhile level, be it the students' fault or, more likely, the schools'.

And as for the Holocaust being taught as bullying, agreed, an odd choice. It makes sense only if you consider how much non-Holocaust anti-Semitic violence was and is about small-scale, school-type bullying. The fact that the Holocaust wasn't that seems more worth noting.

Rita said...

I can sort of see though why fourth and fifth grade teachers who had to try to relate the Holocaust somehow to the lives of their 9-yr.-old students who clearly had no conception of what systematic, government-sponsored persecution and annihilation would be like would choose this approach. This is about the age when questions of race and racism start being introduced into the classroom. So complex historical tragedies get simplified to fit into a 9-yr-old's conception of the world. Their closest experience of genocide, oppression, slavery, etc. probably is being picked on by classmates. So the Holocaust becomes a convenient vehicle for illustrating the dangers of being mean to one another on the playground.

This is probably silly, but not terrible. It only become a problem when it leaves people with the impression that somehow these kinds of political crimes are just outgrowths on a mass scale of hostile private sentiments--as though if a lot of people started thinking that Jews are conniving or Arabs are lazy, that would automatically result in state-sanctioned enslavement or murder of these groups. That's when you start getting a culture that is irrationally hypersensitive to all speech and expression that might be construed as derogatory on the grounds that a lot of people's individual anti-semitism is what caused the Holocaust, or widespread hatred of Africans caused slavery.

Rachel said...

I still have nightmares about the holocaust, I have reoccuring nightmares that oddly take place in Paris (I suppose I have simply not spent enough time in Germany to solidify it into dream-geography). My dreams always involve nazis and lobotomies. Not really concentration camps, but more a pervasive fear of just knowing you were being hunted and destroyed, esecially by an organized group of people supported by a willing citizenry with the veneer of civilization painted over it all.
For some reason a lot of the bad stuff happens at the D'Orsay, but in my dreams it is the Paris Nazi headquarters.
But anyway, it is the only fear I have retained into adulthood, I do not attribute it to public schooling and don't see how private or conservative school would dare not teach about it.