by Richard L. Cravatts, PhD –
By this week, the Rialto Unified School District school board outside of Los Angeles was in full damage control, fending off universal opprobrium over a third-quarter English Language Arts argumentative writing/research project given to 2,000 eighth-graders. The breathtakingly ill-conceived assignment asked students to “read and discuss multiple, credible articles on this issue, and write an argumentative essay, based on cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe [the Holocaust] was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.”
Most critics denounced the assignment as absurd on its face, since it asked middle school students, after reading a only handful of brief research essays, to convince a reader that the Holocaust, one of the most documented historical events in modern human history, either happened or did not happen. Even more egregious than the notion that the Shoah might not have even occurred was the statement that, as the instructions for the assignment read, “some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual event, but instead is a propaganda tool.”
Given that even American high school students cannot identify, as random examples, the half century during which the U.S. Civil War was fought, name a single Supreme Court justice, identify the intent of the Bill of Rights, or identify Britain on a map of the world, the notion that eighth graders could coherently disprove something that is an historical fact, not an opinion, is obviously a useless intellectual exercise. And critics of the assignment were appalled that students were even exposed to the idea that the Holocaust was a myth in the first place, a notion which only those on the lunatic fringe embrace.
While the shell-shocked spokesperson for Rialto school district, Syeda Jafri, assured the media that no complaint about the assignment had been forthcoming from within the district system, either from teachers or parents, the larger question is how the committee of eighth–grade teachers which conceived the critical thinking exercise in the first place had not anticipated the calamitous reaction to their choice for the essay topic. Presumably, every member of that committee had attended college; some, perhaps, even possess advanced degrees. In an education culture suffused with political correctness—and especially on college campuses where the educators studied for their profession—an enormous amount of attention is paid to who may say what about whom, and what is acceptable thought and speech on campuses where “victim” groups vie for rights and accommodations.
One of the groups that does not fare well on campuses these days, however, is Jews, particularly in the context of the debate over Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, the same careless sentiments that accuse Jewish students of being inherently racist for supporting the “apartheid” state of Israel seem to have been present in the committee room when ideas for this year’s assignment were being tossed about for consideration. Consider how classically anti-Semitic the language of the assignment itself is, suggesting in the same paragraph—not once, but twice—that the Holocaust “is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain,” and “merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain.” Who is seeking monetary gain? Who schemed to extort the West? Who has global influence over public opinion? Who seeks undeserved profit? For anti-Semites, the answer has always been the same: Jews.
And that is the very clear message transmitted in the essay assignment, that if one accepts the notion of a fabricated Holocaust, he or she also must hold Jews responsible for that vast, self-serving conspiracy. Professor Robert S. Wistrich, one of the world’s leading authorities on anti-Semitism, has noted that Holocaust denial by definition libels Jews, “that, by accusing Jews . . . of inventing the Shoah to extract billions of dollars and blackmail Germany or the West, the deniers add a peculiarly vile conspiracy theory to the arsenal of millennial anti-Semitism and transform the victims into superlatively cunning, fraudulent, and despicable perpetrators,” precisely what the assumption would be of any student who completed the assignment with the thesis that the Holocaust was a fraud, a “scheme,” or a “propaganda tool.”
For educators seeped in a contemporary cultural of political correctness, it is nearly unbelievable that not one person in that committee room failed to see the moral lethality of the assignment’s language. No one has accused anyone involved with the assignment of being anti-Semitic, but in the highly unlikely event that had anyone on the committee had even proposed a topic that touched upon any other intellectually or culturally incendiary topic, it would have been instantly suppressed and never would have made it out the room, let alone on the assignment of 2000 eighth-graders.
The assignment was meant to promote critical thinking, and there are certainly a wide range of contemporary, relevant, though controversial, topics that might have provided a rich source intellectual wrestling for those middle school minds—topics which would not require that students contradict historical fact, and which are still open to actual debate and investigation. For instance, they could debate whether African Americans are socially and culturally inferior to white people in America, a topic for which there is undoubtedly much opinion on both sides of the argument. They could, as Lawrence Summers did before he was forced to resign as president of Harvard University for having done so, question whether the reason that women fail to excel in math and the sciences, and do not therefore fill faculty slots in those fields, is due to a genetic superiority in men, a controversial but oft-debated theory. There are other relevant and current debates in the marketplace of ideas that certainly are open to opinions from both sides, such as whether when a woman undergoes an abortion she is murdering a child, or if homosexuality is mental disorder and lifestyle choice as opposed to a physiological condition predetermined at birth. If the committee wished for students to evaluate politics and theology, they might have asked if Islam is actually “the religion of peace” or instead is actually an intolerant cult that rejects modernity, requires submission by its adherents, represses women, and has a long history of terror, aggression, and jihad against the infidel world.
All of these topics differ from the one actually chosen by the committee in that none of them can be proven absolutely, and all can be vigorously argued from differing points of view—exactly what the assignment in question was meant to inspire. But, obviously, none of them was chosen, and the reason is just as obvious: had anyone on the committee even dared to have articulated any of the examples above, the other committee members would be apoplectic at the very thought of questioning prevailing orthodoxies or offending members of the groups involved.
In the rarified atmosphere of multi-cultural America culture, and particularly on campuses, where certain topics are off limits and the behavior of certain victim groups can never be questioned, the idea that abortion is wrong, or that women are inferior to men or blacks to whites, or that being gay is somehow defective, or that Islam is theologically malignant—all of these notions are essentially unmentionable, proscribed, too intellectually and emotionally volatile to ever discuss openly or debate, and especially as the basis for a homework assignment. None of these topics would ever be considered for use as a critical thinking assignment precisely because, unfortunately, every educator in that committee room would intuitively, and accurately, realize that members of the groups targeted might feel maligned, insulted, libeled, or intimidated by the ensuing discussion.
But when Jews, and the central horror of Jewish history, were the topic, that moral sensitivity was strangely absent, and the lesson of this incident is to be found just there: that anti-Semitism infected the student assignment completely and no one even knew it had entered the room.
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, is president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.