The school board in Rialto, California, near Los Angeles, assigned its eighth graders to think critically about the Holocaust. They were asked to write an essay explaining whether they believed the Holocaust was a real historical event, or “merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.” You can read about the story here.
That was the assignment. No kidding! This is of course profoundly stupid. Perhaps a better exercise for the eight graders in Rialto would have been this assignment:
“Write an essay addressing whether ‘Teacher Education’ in America, including the Schools of Education, undergraduate Education Degrees, and Education Doctorates, constitute real professional training, or are just an easy way to obtain credentials for students of modest ability who couldn’t hack it in a real academic subject.”
“Analyze That,” as Mr. Di Niro might have exclaimed.
There have been many Holocausts in world history, but the one school administrators were talking about in Rialto was the annihilation of 6 million Jews by Nazis in WWII, along with many Catholics, Romani (sometimes disrespectfully called “gypsies”), Soviet prisoners of war, Polish citizens, and LGBTers, bringing the horrific total to about 11 million.
I’m not going to elaborate on the obvious – that asking kids to critically examine whether or not the Holocaust actually happened, is close to debating the pros and cons of whether 2+2 =4. (“Well not in base 12”). But, I am going to argue that the motives of educators in Rialto probably had nothing to do with bigotry or hate (at least not on their part).
This story made the front pages of a few major California newspapers, but it was buried in most of the country. I watch most of the cable news stations — yes, both Fox and MSNBC – and I did not see it covered there, though this is one story which would upset both sides of the political divide, in the same way. There is some common ground. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t covered?
Here are some other possible explanations of what happened in Rialto, posed as hypotheses to be tested by critically thinking, well trained social scientists:
Hypothesis #1: The educators in Rialto are ignorant.
Their training in history and social science is meager; their grasp of factual information is tenuous; they are unsophisticated. This would not be a surprise. Teacher Education in America has long been the least challenging of virtually any academic discipline. The worst kept secret in academia, for decades, is that Education Degrees are often a last refuge for students who couldn’t hack it in a truly substantive or rigorous academic discipline.
There are of course a tremendous number of exceptions to that generality. If it is at all truthful, it probably applies to a minority of educators, but, I suggest, to a large enough minority, such that a group of educators in Rialto, California could simply have not realized the stupidity of their Holocaust exercise.
While I was teaching in the social sciences at the University of Washington (UW) in 1979 –- and UW is a fine institution with high GPA and SAT standards for admission – I had a junior say to me: “I’m not sure who Hitler was, but I know he had something to do with WW II.” Hmm! He was not enrolled in Teacher Education, so maybe that’s a point against my hypothesis, but I would not be the least bit surprised if some of those educators in Rialto are like this student.
Hypothesis #2: The educators in Rialto are just victims of today’s propogandist news media.
Another angle on the Rialto story, which precludes bigotry or hatred (on the part of the teachers), is the state of today’s news media. Even though virtually none of the most watched and heard liberal and conservative “news” propogandists engage in Holocaust denial, this toxic strain is easy to find all over the internet and blogosphere. It makes its way into both the extreme left and right. It also receives coverage in mainstream news when, for example, anti Israeli leaders, in countries from Iran to Venezuela, are interviewed or heard speaking at the United Nations. I could believe that some educators in Rialto have been exposed to these viewpoints; and thus consider it fair game for critical analysis. You would think, they are sufficiently educated to not bite; but see Hypothesis #1 above.
Hypothesis #3: The educators in Rialto really understand that Holocaust denial is bigotry, and thought their exercise would preempt such thinking amongst their students.
One other possibility that falls short of the bigotry and hatred hypothesis, is that the teachers involved in the Rialto fiasco believed Holocaust denial was absurd and contemptible, and (merely, with good intentions) wanted the kids to learn how to go about debunking and exposing this form of bigotry and hatred. I think this is the weakest of my three hypotheses, but its in the running,
Even if none of these hypotheses are on the right track, the Rialto affair has reminded me of the fight around teacher professionalism and salaries. When teachers are expected and required to navigate the same sort of rigorous training and education that we demand of other professionals, like engineers, lawyers, accountants, scientists, and (some) social scientist and humanities majors, then we can begin talking seriously about compensation for teachers that’s equal to the practitioners of the other disciplines. Teachers are already well compensated in many places in the country, especially when you factor in pensions and health insurance benefits.
But dramatic reform in teacher education has to come first, before I’m willing as a taxpayer to pony up more money. Not the other way around – money first, and teacher education reform later. That wouldn’t make sense.
Yes, my angst over the Rialto incident has resulted in a (sort of) rant about the teaching profession, but of course I don’t intend my remarks to extend to all teachers, by any means.
One last barb: The scores of letters to the editor that you see in newspapers all over the country from teachers attacking efforts to include student test scores as ONE of several factors evaluating teacher performance, and doing so in way that statistically controls for many other factors affecting student outcomes, are, for the most part, written by teachers who took a really dumbed-down form of social science statistics. The average teacher in Chicago, for example, wouldn’t know a Chi Square from Chi Sox, if they tripped over it.
Don’t forget to address your school principal as “Doctor.” And do get involved with your kids’ education at the school building level, if you don’t have to work two jobs.