Monday, April 15, 2013

Out of one's comfort zone

The latest teacher to fancy himself Robin "Dead Poets Society" Williams is one in Albany who asked students to think outside the box (heh) and explain, from the perspective of a Nazi, why Jews are evil. (Via.) Because doesn't it just make you think? Aren't a bunch of bourgeois panties in a twist? Because that, you see, is the purpose of teaching - making students and their stuffy parents (never hip, like the teacher) uncomfortable. Obviously - and I say this as a sometimes-teacher - most teachers don't think like that. But, as a former high school student, I must say that a certain number do. Apart from truly evil (molestation) and incompetent (not showing up; conducting class by silently copying the textbook onto the blackboard; spending all of class telling off-topic personal anecdotes) behavior, this is my least favorite pedagogical approach. Proper teaching should itself be enough to give students a new perspective. But that sort of me-vs.-your-presumed-naivete attitude is irritating at best, and cultish at worst.

Anyway, what's challenging about this story is that once one gets past one's initial reaction (as a friend of mine put it on Facebook, and it couldn't be put better: "WTF?"), one is left trying to pin down exactly why this crossed a line. Because it wasn't that the teacher tried to demonstrate that Nazis were humans, not monsters. After all, 'why did Nazis/so many other otherwise ordinary people throughout history hate Jews?' is a valid question to ask. Much serious research is done on this topic, little of it by Nazi sympathizers. Lots by Jewish scholars. Historians and others will not ask why some essential They hated The Jews, but rather why a specific time and place was conducive to anti-Semitism.

But the factors tended to have little to do with real-life Jews. The ancient Hebrews are rather significant in Christianity, but Jews have tended to be a tiny minority if present at all in the West. And then of course there was the question of which Jews, if any, Gentiles had contact with. If we're talking mid-19th C France... financiers, prostitutes, yes. Village-dwelling peddlers, not so much. This led to a warped perspective. Point being, the question isn't 'what's so dreadful about Jews, now and always?' but rather 'how did Jews come to symbolize materialism, urbanization, secularism, or whatever else anti-Semitism functioned as at a given moment?' So the teacher's demand doesn't even make sense as a history lesson.

So that's one problem with the assignment - Nazi anti-Semitism was not some kind of rational response to Jewish misdeeds. Nice touch, btw, that the teacher asked students to look to their own lives for examples of... Jews' evilness? Anti-Semitism? Unclear.

But the bigger problem is hello, these are high school students. They're not history grad students being trained to teach courses on anti-Semitism. They don't need to really, intensely get what a midcentury anti-Semite would have had against Jews. They don't need to learn about racist strains of romanticism, about nostalgia for an agrarian past. (Not that this assignment would make sense for grad students, either - see above.) Since when isn't it enough to tell high school kids that Nazism was a racist ideology, to give whichever standard and not inaccurate explanations depending the level of the students (economic resentment ignoring the existence of poor Jews, longstanding religious intolerance, various factors unrelated to Jews making fascism appealing to many at that time)? And if one wishes to make the point that Nazis were ordinary citizens, one might bring up the "banality of evil" argument, toss Arendt's name onto the board, and be done with it. Students can - will! - make the leap on their own and realize that if they'd been "Aryan" in Nazi Germany, chances are they wouldn't have done the right thing, either.

Insisting they write essays on Jews' horribleness is... well, it reminds me of when they bring in a former bulimic to warn teen girls, and then half the class is like, 'huh, you can throw up after meals to lose weight?', and a quarter of the class goes and does just that. Americans in 2013 aren't giving all that much thought to Jews either way, so this is a case of dumb-idea-planting.

And yeah, Jewish students may have been in the class. (To quote my friend once more: "WTF?") There's a scene in Arnon Grunberg's The Jewish Messiah, a Dutch (translated!) novel I read recently, in which a young Jewish character readily agrees with a postwar Nazi sympathizer that the world would have been better had he - and all other Jews - never been born. This in the context of a truly out-there novel about postwar Europe confronting that era, one whose title character is - spoiler alert, nausea alert - a testicle in a jar. But back on earth, kids - adults! - tend not to dispassionately ponder their own extermination. An assignment that would remove all students (save whichever budding neo-Nazis?) from their comfort zone would be altogether traumatic, even incomprehensible, for Jewish kids. It's not a lesson the entire class would be able to complete.


Flavia said...

Thanks for this Phoebe, which has helped resolve some of the uneasiness that I felt about this story.

It's obviously a stupid assignment. However, I haven't been able to condemn it as thoroughly as some commenters, because it seems (albeit in a misguided way) potentially to respond to some things that frustrate me about teaching certain topics. I do find that, in the case of the pre-Civil Rights era in the south and in the case of the Holocaust, students tend to be ready to rest in a comfortable condemnation: all those people (white Southerners who resisted civil rights, Germans who didn't actively protest the Holocaust) were just evil and cowardly and we would never behave as they do! And that's a frustrating and unnuanced understanding of human nature that also really lets us off the hook: making an issue in the past seem so black-and-white means we don't have to investigate how complicated our own feelings toward marginalized groups can be--gay people, illegal immigrants, ex-cons, or whatever.

But I think you're exactly right that this assignment doesn't address that problem, both because it pretends there's something rational and understandable about anti-Semitism--something that you can make an argument for, even in a debate-team, devil's-advocate-y way!--and because it basically still allows students to stay in their comfort zones, where discrimination is something that happened long ago and far away.

Phoebe said...

What I might have added, but what I hinted at re: the teacher's suggestion that students look for examples (of what?) from their own lives, is that it isn't entirely clear that this was a poorly-thought-through exercise in demonstrating the banality of evil, or that history's bad guys were normal people. It does seem mighty possible that this teacher would have had no trouble whatsoever imagining a case against Jews. It's just tough to explain this. It's just not as unambiguous as some well-meaning sorts responding to the story would like it to be.