Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


Being in Berkeley right now, I think often about Mario Savio’s famous speech, now approaching its 50th anniversary. This passage, in particular, came to my mind in regard to recent events:

Well I ask you to consider — if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something — the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be —  have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product! Don’t mean — Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!

The news report that brought this to mind was the administrative punishment of an Albany NY teacher who assigned students to write an essay based on their reading of Nazi propaganda, in the voice of an aspirant to Nazi party membership trying to convince a superior that he understands why the “Jews are evil and the source of our problems”. I turns out that some pupils found this assignment unsettling, and unsettling the raw material impairs the quality of the marketable product.

I’ve always been puzzled by the obsession of Americans, and American schools, with the Holocaust. Where I grew up, a large fraction of the population was Jewish, so it didn’t seem all that strange, but I remember thinking it strange that our recurring social studies theme “Mans inhumanity to man” was always pretty much exclusively about Nazi Germany. What about the American Indians? I wondered. That’s something we’re actually responsible for. Slavery got some discussion, but US imperialism pretty much none at all. When I was inspired, in my student days, by a Mark Twain polemic to wonder about the details of the US occupation of the Philippines, in those days before Wikipedia I searched in vain for a book, and the only one I could find was a 1920s report of a congressional committee investigating reports of atrocities, that was fairly hair-raising. The Viet Nam War had just ended when I was in junior high school, but “Man’s inhumanity to man” was presented to us as a German problem.

As my analytic capacity and my cynicism grew, I came to see the Holocaust as a convenient distraction from US crimes. The Holocaust that was an honorary American history topic, where the American role was only as the hero who ended the crime, and after the fact as refuge for some of the victims.

But purely from a pedagogical perspective, the problem with the Holocaust as a history topic for American students is that it seems so strange. Even to contemporaries, even to many contemporary Germans, Nazism seemed bizarre, but it has a certain coherence within the context of the politics (and science!) of its time. A member of the Anti-Defamation League was quoted: “You asked a child to support the notion that the Holocaust was justified, that’s my struggle. It’s an illogical leap for a student to make.” And one student told reporters, “We thought it would make more sense if we were Jews arguing against Nazis.” Yes, it is very difficult. But the only pedagogically responsible alternative is to drop the topic altogether. If you don’t compel the students to engage with the Antisemitic worldview — and that’s not going to happen if they write an essay preaching social tolerance and the evils of racism — then the effect is merely to increase everyone’s self-esteem about how enlightened they are. They would be better served by learning about atrocities whose motivating Weltanschauung they or their communities actually sympathise with.

A Holocaust survivor who was speaking in a nearby school was quoted saying “I hope they walk away with seeing to it that (the Holocaust) won’t happen here, that they can’t let it happen here.” That’s not going to happen if they walk away with the impression that genocide is committed by monsters whose motivations are so obviously stupid, that they can be demolished by adolescent platitudes. They won’t recognise it when it happens here, even after the fact.

To be sure, I wouldn’t exempt the teacher from criticism. You may lament some aspects of the mindset prevailing among your students, but you have to at least start from an awareness of where they are, and the context in which they are used to being taught. That is going to frame their response to anything you do. The teacher probably should have prepared them more explicitly, explaining the educational function of being compelled to grapple with beliefs that seem completely alien. (Perhaps he did; the reporting is unclear.) Children and teens today are accustomed to a kind of pedagogic Taylorism, and had every reason to expect that they were going to get their Holocaust box ticked, not that they were going to be challenged to confront the secret chthonic pith of 20th century rationalism.

Or, as one of the students put it, she felt “horrible” about it, but “she eventually wrote the five paragraph essay because she didn’t want to hurt her grade.” I’m sure many of her counterparts in 1930s Munich would have said something similar.

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