Was this a clever case of devil’s advocate or was it just wildly inappropriate and misguided?
This argument sums up the predicament one teacher is facing in Albany. Currently placed on leave, the unnamed teacher stirred controversy in Albany High School when they asked students to write a persuasive essay on why Jews are evil in order to convince a Nazi officer of loyalty. The assignment was given to three sophomore English classes in preparation for reading Night by Elie Wiesel, a memoir of Wiesel’s experience at concentration camps during World War II.
While the teacher in question may have had good educational intentions in assigning such an essay, the reality of the matter is that it made people uncomfortable/offended on an already uncomfortable topic. As an educator, the teacher should have exercised more sensitivity and a tighter moral judgment.
This incident is a prime example of cognitive dissonance — a theory well known in social psychology. Cognitive dissonance results when people attempting to seek out consistency in their beliefs are met with something that causes conflict with their previous perception. In the case of the students given the assignment, it is safe to presume that they harbored no ill will towards Jewish people. However, they were subjected to dissonance where they had to conjure up negative thoughts for a purely hypothetical situation. The human drive aims to reduce dissonance because it is uncomfortable and can be upsetting to deal with.
The teacher’s priority going into discussing material as heavy as Night should have been focused on ways to facilitate reading and classroom discussion — not distressing students further by forcing them to think like a racist.
Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard issued an apology for the assignment in a news conference on Friday. In attendance was also the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Federation of New York.
“You asked a child to support the notion that the Holocaust was justified, that's my struggle," Wyngaard said. Director of the Jewish Federation of New York, Shelly Shapiro also gave her input.
“It's not how you teach about how prejudice has led to genocide,” she said. “There are ways to do it. This way was not the proper pedagogical way to do it.”
One of the three classes given the assignment refused to complete it. Another student in a class said she was put off by the assignment, as were many of her classmates, but she wrote the essay regardless, because she did not want to risk her grade. She also said that she never heard racial remarks from her teacher — that instead, the teacher liked to challenge the students.
This case is the latest in a stream of incidents that should serve to remind us that the cruelties and pain of the Holocaust are not to be taken lightly. Justin Bieber hoped Anne Frank would have been a “Belieber” and researchers recently discovered that there were more Nazi camps and ghettos than originally thought.
Outside the scope of anti-Semitism in Albany High’s case, the age old counsel “think before you speak” could have saved this teacher’s reputation (and possibly, their job).