Yes, this really happened. And yes, there’s a lesson in here about dialogue.
According to reporter Scott Waldman of The Times Union, a number of Albany High School students recently went to English class and received a disturbing assignment: imagine that you are a Nazi, and use Nazi propaganda to develop a persuasive essay on why Jews are evil.
If that chilled you to the bone, you’re in good company. It chilled me too. But let’s unpack this a bit more.
For me, a secondary problem is that this type of assignment—the basic structure, not the content—could have been an outstanding exercise in dialogue.
Here’s why. Authentic dialogue calls on us to suspend our own preconceptions, however temporarily, so we can hear the other person unfiltered (or, rather, as unfiltered as we can get). It is a key to approaching others with a clear mind and an open heart.
This assignment takes the clear mind/open heart paradigm one big step further—by asking students to think from within the other’s perspective. In most cases, this is a noble and extraordinary thing. By thinking from within, we honor those who hold that perspective. Often we discover that the other perspective has some validity; we can at least see how a reasonable person might believe it. This can drive us into dialogue with, and open us to compassion for, the people who hold that belief.
That’s in most cases. Thinking from within Nazism is a different beast.
Over the course of human history, certain beliefs and events—the word evil applies here—have scarred our consciousness. Their potential to do further damage persists for many years, often for centuries. As a result, speaking of them with anything but the utmost gravity, without painstaking consideration of their horror and historical context, is delicate at best (as in the case of satire or parody to skewer the belief) and destructive at worst.
This is what made George W. Bush’s error in 2001—using the word crusade to describe the stand against terrorism—so grievous. It’s why I’m trying to expunge the phrase drink the Kool-Aid from my vocabulary: because I spent time studying the tragedy at Jonestown in my college days, and the phrase carries too many evil connotations to be used lightly. It’s what makes this Nazi assignment so problematic and offensive.
I wish the teacher had thought to focus on a different scenario: not skirting controversy, by any means, but giving our collective scars their due. Using a difficult issue on which good-hearted people disagree—like abortion or hydrofracking—could have been thunderously powerful if students had to write in favor of the stance they personally oppose.
Compassion and connection to all people are virtues. We are not required, however, to seriously consider their paradigms if those paradigms have wrought evil on our planet.
What do you think? Where would you draw the line on this assignment? What topics are beyond acceptable, and which within bounds?