I’ve heard about schools doing some stupid things over the years, but the school district in Rialto, California, takes the cake. It had the audacity to assign eighth graders to write an essay as to whether the Holocaust happened. To be precise, students were asked “whether or not you believe this was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.” In the wake of public outrage, the Rialto United School District has since announced it will modify its curriculum concerning this assignment.
Despite their about-face, it must be said that the Holocaust is historical fact, not something in which one believes or doesn’t believe. What astonishes me is that someone sensible like National Review Online’s Charles C.W. Cooke thinks this exercise is a good idea:
Why should children believe that the prevailing account of Holocaust is true? Should they believe it because the dominant culture tells them that it is true, or should they believe it because the historical record in this area can speak for itself? Clearly, it is the latter. Why insulate the young from themselves?
I would ask the same question here as I used to ask at Oxford when an invitation to someone downright unpleasant provoked protests. What exactly do we think is going to happen if we invite into our classrooms people and ideas that we dislike? Are we really so insecure in our norms that we cannot open them to exploration? Are we so down on our fellow citizens that we think they will start goose stepping if they hear from someone ugly? The whole point in listening to the marginalized and in setting up questions with extreme premises is that doing so exposes which of the popular counter-arguments are weak and which are strong, and, crucially, that it allows contributors to arrive at the truth by virtue of their own effort.
I must emphasize that Cooke is one of my favorite conservative writers (and not because he was once referenced one of my blog posts a couple of years ago). So I was greatly disappointed in his line of reasoning.
It must be noted that in preparation of these essays students were asked to use materials written by people who deny Jews were gassed in concentration camps and argue that Anne Frank’s diary was a forgery. This effectively legitimizes Holocaust denial as a field of academic study and a subject worthy of scholarly pursuit. I am sure that is not Cooke’s intent, but that would be its effect.
Three decades ago, one of the top news stories in Canada was Jim Keegstra, a “teacher” from Eckville, Alberta who taught Holocaust denial as fact and told students that an international Jewish conspiracy was going to destroy Christianity and implement world government. Keegstra would eventually be convicted of willfully promoting hatred against Jews. If Cooke thinks it’s best to teach children whether the Holocaust actually happened, not only does it legitimize Holocaust denial, but it opens the possibility of more Keegstras in the classroom. In which case, school boards might as well issue invitations to representatives from the government of Iran or the Palestinian Authority.
The Holocaust is not open for debate and its occurrence is no more open for debate than is whether World War II happened. Now in the course of teaching young people about the Holocaust I take no issue with mentioning that there are segments of society that deny the Holocaust. But in so doing it must be imparted and impressed upon young people that said segments do not have a factual basis for their claims and that their arguments are solely motivated by the very hatred that resulted in the deaths of six million Jews. The bottom line here is that we shouldn’t be teaching our children if The Holocaust happened, but how and why it happened and why it must never happen again.