Public schools

Let's Have Middle-Schoolers Debate Whether the Holocaust Happened!

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Inappropriate!
Credit: Eric Constantineau—www.ericconstantineau.com / photo on flickr

A group of eighth-grade teachers in the Rialto Unified School District (that's east of Los Angeles in the Inland Empire of Southern California) decided that a good way to teach their students effective debate skills in writing is to ask them to take a side on whether the Holocaust happened and back up their arguments with facts. You don't need an Upworthy-style headline to figure out what happened after news got out about the students' assignment. Outrage! Death threats! And so the school district will not repeat the assignment. From The Sun of San Bernardino, California:

Throughout the day Monday, the district fielded angry calls from parents, a death threat and a flurry of media inquiries over the assignment, which district officials initially defended as an effort to teach students to think critically. Ultimately, however, administrators acknowledged the assignment was in poor taste and promised it would not be given again.

"Our interim superintendent will be talking with our Educational Services Department to assure that any references to the Holocaust 'not occurring' will be stricken on any current or future Argumentative Research projects," district spokeswoman Syeda Jafri said in a prepared statement late Sunday.

Initially, seconds before it turned into a massive public relations disaster, the school district was defending the assignment to The Sun as part of Common Core requirements to teach critical thinking. In an early response, one school board member said, "Current events are part of the basis for measuring IQ. The Middle East, Israel, Palestine and the Holocaust are on newscasts discussing current events. Teaching how to come to your own conclusion based on the facts, test your position, be able to articulate that position, then defend your belief with a lucid argument is essential to good citizenship."

The Holocaust is a current event? Anyway, I can see both where this bus was going and why it was never going to get there. What if dozens of students decided to argue that the Holocaust didn't happen, given the small amount of information provided by the writing assignment? Even though I believe the slaughter obviously did happen, I could easily see the argumentative eighth grade version of me trying to argue the other side just to prove I was clever. Imagine the kind of public relations disaster it would have been if it got out that a bunch of Rialto students wrote that the Holocaust didn't happen in a school assignment. Imagine being those kids' parents.

This is not to say engaging in a look at Holocaust denial theories should be beyond the bounds of education, but perhaps not in 8th grade and not as a homework assignment on writing skills?

Also, the controversy is a good reminder that even when they're actually trying to teach critical thinking skills instead of suppressing them, public schools sometimes struggle with doing so in a sensible way. If I were a parent, I'd be more concerned about how quickly the school district Godwinned itself by selecting a subject with such an obvious desired outcome and not something that would actually lead to diverse answers and debate. Will they replace the assignment with a debate over whether man actually landed on the moon next? Or whether the world is round or flat? Or maybe this is the public school version of teaching critical skills—only tackling obvious cases where determining the "right" answer is a breeze.