Student assignment on Holocaust denial sparks appropriate public outrage

A GIGANTIC mistake by teachers in a California 8th grade classroom where the students were given an assignment on Holocaust denial.

EXCLUSIVE: Rialto Unified defends writing assignment on confirming or denying Holocaust.

The Rialto Unified School District is defending an eighth-grade assignment that asks students to debate in writing whether the Holocaust was “merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain.”

The district says the assignment is merely to teach students to evaluate the quality of evidence made by advocates or opponents of an issue.

This was their assignment:

“When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence,” the assignment reads. “For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. Based upon your research on this issue, write an argumentative essay, utilizing 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. Remember to address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim. You are also required to use parenthetical (internal) citations and to provide a Works Cited page.”

Talk about stoking conspiratorial thinking! That is outrageous. While perhaps the teachers’ intent was to show that the evidence for denialism is poor, this is an extremely bad way to illustrate that. Bringing up the topic this way give it completely undeserved credibility. There is no good QUALITY debate about their actual existence. We may argue about what happened and the causes but there is NO debate about 9/11 or the World Wars or plane crashes, etc.

What sort of references would the students have read in order to find opinions that support that the Holocaust never happened? Not sound academic ones, that’s for sure. Such absurd fringe ideas need to remain on the fringe, rejected by society for good reason. This was a TERRIBLE assignment for critical thinking.

The public outrage was appropriate.

Angry public blasts Rialto school board for Holocaust assignment.

For the first time since news broke of a controversial Holocaust essay assignment, the Rialto Unified School District school board took “full responsibility” for the task Wednesday night, telling a packed board chamber that the assignment was “horribly inappropriate.”

Elected officials, rabbis and residents filled the board’s meeting room to express their disapproval of the writing assignment that asked eighth-graders to argue for or against the reality of the Holocaust.”

The board statement read in part:

“The board and staff are deeply sorry for the hurt and propagation of misinformation caused by this assignment,” the statement began. “There was no intent to be hurtful, but due to a lack of critical thought and a lack of internal checks and balances, this project commenced and turned into a horribly inappropriate assignment.”

Indeed. If you see something like this, encouraging inappropriate denial of evidence about well established events in history or theories in science, you should absolutely speak out. Speaking out against the outrageous hint that a tragedy of human history was propaganda is the real exorcise in critical thinking.

Holcaust denialists distory historical facts to make their anti-Semitic case. They are the ones creating propaganda. I hope this turns into a teachable moment for the students.

More on this topic:

Background & Overview of Holocaust Denial | Jewish Virtual Library.

Holocaust denial – The Skeptic’s Dictionary – Skepdic.com.

Holocaust Denial on Trial.

The NESS » Holocaust Denial.

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  21 comments for “Student assignment on Holocaust denial sparks appropriate public outrage

  1. Indrid Cole
    May 8, 2014 at 10:48 AM

    As a kid I remember looking through my dad’s pictorial encyclopedia of WWII located on our living room bookshelf. The images of the huge pits full of emaciated corpses of the concentration camp victims will forever be burned into my memory.

  2. Gary B
    May 8, 2014 at 12:01 PM

    When I was in the eighth grade I came upon a book entitled Eichmann. It was the story of Eichmann and the holocaust complete with photographs that were unbelievably shocking to my young eyes and mind. My eighth grade english teacher, Carla Berchekas asked me to stay after class when she found I was reading this book and helped me to understand it’s whole, horrifying significance. I hope the folks in this school district were just ham fisted in picking their subject and had no other motive. If Miss Berchekas is still with us 52 years after the fact, thanks for being such a good teacher.

  3. Tom
    May 8, 2014 at 12:35 PM

    The relativists are at it again.
    There is no “debate”about the holocaust.
    There are wooly minded people, who, living now in a relatively safe society, have had no direct experience of industrial scale mass killings, death marches in mid winter, cattle trucks loaded with corpses and half a continent in ruins and bankrupt.

  4. Charles Paxton
    May 8, 2014 at 1:00 PM

    I have got to disagree with you here. In principle this is an excellent way to inspire critical thinking. If taught properly to evaluate sources, the students will see behind the claims of holocaust deniers. I would especially support this if it is part of a continium. So the students evaluate the evidence for the Holocaust where obviously there is a massive consensus it happened, perhaps then the Armenian genocide where at least one extant state denies it ever happened and then perhaps to the Holdolmar where there is greater controversy and then perhaps to medieval accounts of mass murder where sometimes there is a genuine controversy. If done properly I think this could be inspired history teaching. Surely we must teach people to consider the evidence for anything, most especially the things everyone agrees upon. To consider something as not open for even the smallest debate is a sort of confirmatory bias. For example no one in the Soviet Union could call the Katyn forest massacre anything other than the work of the NAZIs but that did not make it true. I may have a bias here because we talk about holocaust denial in my tertiary level critical thinking course. I would have one caveat: maybe the kids should be older.

    • May 8, 2014 at 1:57 PM

      I see your point and think that Holocaust denialism CAN be used as an example to inspire critical thinking, as with other pseudosciences. But the outline of this assignment missed the mark entirely, encouraging shoddy conspiratorial thinking that “some people believe” things are not as they seem and then seeking evidence for their house of cards.

      I’m thinking the backfire effect would be engaged in such sloppy exercises.

    • BobM
      May 8, 2014 at 4:01 PM

      As I understand it half the class were told to investigate the truth, the other half the falsity. Sorry that’s clumsily put. But there are a number of problems with this – the evidence for falsity is very poor for instance. So one half of the class are not going to get a great deal of proper evidence. The other problem is, as I understand it eighth graders are 13 to 14? They really don’t have much show of properly analysing the evidence against. Because on the surface it might seem plausible. So if you are going to set this is a topic it needs more mature students at the very least.

    • justin
      May 8, 2014 at 11:39 PM

      Very well put Mr. Paxton. I believe all avenues should be considered, no matter how outlandish. Dismissing things offhandedly limits yourself. Of all the things that irritate me “which is most sadly” complete dismissal based on personal or popular bias, with no attempt to look at the world through objective eyes. None of us can be objective all the time. But it can’t possibly hurt to try. Don’t put limits on what you can learn. Look at everything and decide for yourself what you believe. Oh, and drugs are bad ;)

  5. Ken C
    May 8, 2014 at 1:44 PM

    My father was stationed outside Belsen when it was liberated by the British army in 1945. Thankfully he was not witness to the camp , he did however escort both inmates and SS guards , the latter arrogant and unrepentant with one particular SS guard put in his place by a big angry Highland sergeant ….. the smell was apparent from the billet which well away from the camp and there was a greasy texture to the ground which was allegedly body fat from the incinerators. The material evidence as well as the anecdotes from the people who lived through this nightmare is testament to an atrocity and I find it incredible how such intelligent people can attempt to distort the facts to deny it ever happened. As for the matter above , evidently not thought through by those concerned.

    • Andrea
      May 30, 2014 at 10:48 AM

      I totally agree with you Ken C. These folks are a disgrace for supporting such nonsense. This DID happen, it is not conjecture or someone’s wild imagination. This IS history!! We have some how allowed the”Common Core”, standard of educating our youth brainwash our children. Shame on anyone who would deny this horrific time in history. I would love to hear from a Jewish survivor on this. This is so demeaning and demoralizing to them and the deceased. What they should be doing is taking a field trip to DC to the “Holocaust Museum”, to see the photos and actual footage of the heinous acts and events that actually took place. We need to eliminate “Common Core”, from our educational systems now, before it’s too late!

  6. Jim Speiser
    May 8, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    As someone who studies Denialism (mainly in the form of Climate Change Denial), I have to ask, is the outrage over this assignment due to rejection of Denialism in general, or specifically because the Holocaust is a “sacred” or “taboo” subject? If the former, I am as impatient with Denialism as the next guy, but I think it’s a worthy target of any class dealing with critical thinking, empiricism, epistemology, etc. If the latter…as a Jew myself, I think it’s high time we dropped this universal ban on discussing anything related to Nazis, the Holocaust, etc. Everyone knows the Holocaust took place. Everyone knows it was a horrible chapter in human history, perhaps our lowest point as a species. But Denialism ALSO exists, and it needs to be dealt with. I can’t think of a better way to deal with it – and perhaps wipe it out! – than to get young minds wrapped it to the point that it smothers to death!

  7. Steve Chaput
    May 8, 2014 at 3:48 PM

    “Appropriate public outrage” does not include sending death threats to school officials. Unless my idea of ‘appropriate’ is vastly different from some folks.

    I find the idea of the essay not objectionable. We can accept that the Holocaust happened, but there can still be an assignment that looks at why some individuals do not believe it did. No subject should be beyond debate. Isn’t that something we in the skeptic community continually call for?

    I’d like to think that we still have freedom of inquiry and debate in this country.

    • May 8, 2014 at 5:57 PM

      I don’t know that the death threats were related to this issue. Do you?

  8. K Friesen
    May 8, 2014 at 5:43 PM

    It is terrible that the Holocaust (as well as the Holodomor, the Armenian genocide, the Khmer Rouge, etc) occurred. It is equally terrible that there are people who vigorously deny them, not because there is good reason to think they might not have occurred, but usually because they want to believe that the victims are making it up because they are “conspiring” to make the perpetrators look evil.

    However, it is also (but not equally) problematic that these issues have become such an incendiary topic that there is no way to approach discussing them other than the socially sanctioned view of them. I am not saying that we have an incorrect understanding of what happened, I don’t believe that our history books are wrong when it comes to these terrible events (but I admit I have not intensively studied them like the scholars and experts of these events have), but I am saying that it is troubling that we have made any alternative way of looking at them such a taboo subject.

    I understand that part of the taboo is directly related to the fact that there are people who deny them, and that, in an effort to extinguish the possibility of a belief in such denial to begin, we attack anybody who even allows such a discussion to begin. I am as anxious as much as anybody that denial of these events not take a foothold. However, such a reflexive anger against even examining unpopular (and untrue) beliefs is not a good thing either.

    That said, these kids are also very young and impressionable. They have not fully developed their critical thinking skills. It may not be wise to ask them to adjudicate such a volatile subject, especially when their is so much hatred fuelled discussion, and so much falsification of “evidence” and outright lying being spread around on the internet. I remember from when I was younger, I loved to pick up on threads of controversial beliefs and accept them if only because they were controversial and different than what I was being told.

    It is not an easy subject even for adults to deal with.

  9. May 8, 2014 at 9:38 PM

    I’m with Paxton, Speiser et al in thinking that the assignment, as worded, is a legitimate exercise in investigating sources, evaluating credibility and perhaps most important, trying to figure out what the arguments (cockamamie as they might be) are for the denialist position.

    In fact, one of my community college writing students asked to write about the Holocaust and I queried where she would be putting her emphasis. She said she would be discussing the denialist movement. I allowed the topic as a recognition that such a movement exists and should be dealt with. I wanted her to uncover the logic and claims being used by denialists and be able to respond to them with credible counter-arguments.

    As I discovered at a recent student-led lecture at Arizona State University, the 9/11 Truther movement is apparently not going away, no matter how many scientists, engineers, and scholars show the ridiculousness of the claims. Without going to the lecture, I wouldn’t have been aware of the specific claims which, if presented in a certain way, could possibly sway impressionable minds. (This is the same reason I occasionally tune into Rush or George Noory…though I can usually only manage about 2 minutes these days.)

    Let’s not give wooful ideas a place at the table by suffering terms like “allopathic physician” or “Intelligent Design” to be bandied about, but we still need to innoculate our students by letting them investigate the ideas in the structured environment of school.

  10. Phil
    May 8, 2014 at 11:36 PM

    Critical and skeptical thinking are good topics. The Holocaust for 8th grade is not. For a college class, maybe.

    • nck
      May 15, 2014 at 2:37 PM

      Yeah, it is a little young….high school is ok, i think. Im simply worried that an eighth grader, doing research on line will come across bullsheet like the 50 points or something idiotic like that written by deniers. Their points sound good until you research them…..and then they fall apart.

      I admit, when I first heard about holocaust denying, I was interested. I was wondering IF something of this magnitude could have been fabricated…..after all, so much of the info on Hitler and the Nazis is so faulty, that I thought that perhaps it is possible……..until, again, one really looks into it. I don’t know if kids that young could do that type of research…….the smartest maybe, but not the majority.

  11. Woody
    May 9, 2014 at 4:03 AM

    I remember a film shown to us in year 11 History class when the subject was Nazi Germany. The film showed clumsily stacked bodies in pits, they were so pale, the scene so horrible. Becoming a critical thinker at the time, I imagined also how this powerful scene could have easily been played to great effect by the camera team that chose angles, lighting and such. I quickly realized that those directing camera’s needed no such special Hollywood effect. The findings were actually as horrible as I saw them.
    I’ve heard and read of denial in the form of questions regarding the accuracy of details of history’s record on the subject. Exactly how many millions were killed in this way and such-like. I didn’t think that these things made so much difference in how we may view the subject. Others seem to think that if eight million, or six million, was actually only four million, that this might alter our view on the subject, not my view.
    On the other hand, I have commented on other blogs, skeptical blogs regarding organic farming, atheist blogs regarding the extent and severity and commonality of child rape within the Catholic church, even on ‘crashed UFO’ blogs regarding just how many cases of failing motor engines and electrical equipment actually re-started by themselves when the ‘UFO’ left the area and how many were simply able to be restarted in the normal way, after.
    My point, at times like these was, “There’s no harm in getting the facts and figures straight on this question which seems to be so hotly debated. As a skeptic, maybe this urge runs stronger within me than in non-skeptics.
    I’ve read a number of good comments on this post already and can only add that, despite my personal urge to have the facts and figures straight, it never steals from the gravity and horror of some historical events.
    Although being so individual, all of us, i’m sure we can all present a historical horror that moves us as much or even more than the so called ‘Holocaust’, depending on our personal back-ground, origin and distrust of what is shown in brighter, more horrible light or description in all forms of media exchange.

  12. Gary Grady
    May 9, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    I wish I would have had the guts, years ago, to delicately ask the elderly woman seated next to me on a plane about the numbers tattooed on her wrist. I guess I didn’t for a reason.

  13. Dan Beach
    May 9, 2014 at 3:17 PM

    I don’t really have a problem with this for the following reasons:

    1. The topic is such that there is only one right answer.
    2. The “evidence” and arguments of the other side use logical fallacies in a very obvious way, which can help spot them when they are used in more subtle ways.
    3. A real “teaching moment” will occur for those that had problems with the assignment.
    4. The students will invariably find out that lots of claims thrown out there are unverifiable (and therefore inaccurate).
    5. Students will see how people twist facts and figures to suit whatever their interests are. I don’t think this assignment lends any credibility to the crackpots. I doubt the teacher wold ever accept any argument that didn’t effectively counter the crackpots’ arguments.
    6. The students’ BS-meter will probably be improved through discovery and they will learn not to take things at face value.
    7. “Public outrage” is not warranted in this case. Its no better than the public outrage religious people express when their beliefs are challenged. When schools teach that holocaust denial is plausible, then by all means grab the torches and pitchforks.

    I also watched the concentration camp videos in school and they are one of the few things from back then that I remember so vividly. It was a disgusting thing. I’m fine with students not only understanding that, but to also learn about how the world really works: People will lie and contort the facts in even the most egregious situations, so be wary of those with an agenda.

    • May 15, 2014 at 3:24 PM

      Exactly, Dan. By taking a clear cut example of a fallacious argument, one which nevertheless has its adherents, a student is able to fold back the facade of bad evidence and non-credible sources. With a more nuanced topic it would be much more difficult to spot the fallacies…indeed, might not be possible. And the fact that grown men and women actually put forward cockamamie theories teaches a student that otherwise sensible people — people who can navigate a car down a freeway, figure out an airline schedule, make a pot of coffee, trim their toenails without gouging themselves — can believe weird things.

  14. nck
    May 15, 2014 at 2:27 PM

    The Holdolmar happened. Period. Like the Holocaust happened. Period. If someone denies the Hololmar or is asked if it really happened……is there jail time……or an outrage?? No. But, there is with the Holocaust. Even jail time.

    How the HELL, can ANYONE, in their RIGHT MIND think this is good. Go to jail…….FOR AN IDEA??? Meet with outrage for giving an assignment, that if done PROPERLY, will ONLY lead to ONE conclusion??

    The Holocaust was a dreadful, horrific experience, a sad, sickening piece of history. And now, we have people thinking that its OK to act in the same way as those who CAUSED the Holocaust???

    I don’t get it…..i just don’t.

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