Critical thinking on Holocaust starts with why not if

Like many in our community, I was horrified by last week’s news regarding the Rialto Unified School District’s English assignment for its 2,000 eighth-graders (“SoCal school district backtracks on assignment questioning Holocaust,” May 9). Students were asked to “read and discuss multiple, credible articles on [the Holocaust], and write an argumentative essay, based upon cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe this was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.”

While this Southern California district ultimately apologized, pulled the assignment, pledged to review the vetting process and said it would send all eighth-grade students and teachers to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, its initial response is noteworthy. When first confronted, the district defended the assignment as an exercise in “critical thinking.”

Following this story brought me back to 2006, when the Institute for Curriculum Services reviewed the California edition of a modern world history text for 10th grade. It was the year after ICS was established by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council to improve accuracy in public schools on the teaching of Jews, Judaism and Israel. While ICS made numerous recommendations for corrections to the history text, one particular issue stood out.

A skill exercise recommended that teachers “tell students that in recent years there have been some efforts to prove that the number of people who perished in the Holocaust has been greatly exaggerated” and “explain that historians use numerous methods to review and interpret the past, including the use of primary and secondary sources with competing points of view and frames of reference.”

The exercise recommended that “students work in small groups to apply critical methods of historical inquiry to examine the claim that the Holocaust was a small-scale purge of minorities…”

Sounds pretty similar to the Rialto Holocaust assignment; the difference is that this exercise came from a popular textbook used by high school students not only in California, but nationwide.

In its detailed review, ICS called on the publisher to remove the activity, which put Holocaust denial on the level of a legitimate scholarly position. The publisher initially rejected the request, claiming that the exercise would, in fact, expose Holocaust denial. ICS responded again, this time with arguments and support from eminent Holocaust scholars Deborah Lipstadt and John Roth, pointing out that this was deeply offensive on multiple levels. Ultimately, ICS prevailed, and the publisher agreed to delete the activity from all future printings and editions of the textbook.

In both cases — the recent incident in Rialto and the history textbook in 2006 — there was no evidence that the people involved had a nefarious, Holocaust denial-related agenda. However, the lack of a hostile agenda in some ways makes these incidents all the more disturbing, as it suggests a serious lack of ability to distinguish between historical facts, which are indisputable, and theories, which are fair game for debate.

In our review of the history text, we noted that there may be people in America who maintain that slavery never happened, but no reasonable person would consider or recommend posing that as a question to encourage critical thinking. Postmodernists notwithstanding, there are historical facts that are indisputable. Debate about the reality of those facts does not promote critical thinking — it promotes confusion, inaccuracy and great offense to the community affected.

While debating the “if” of the Holocaust does not stimulate critical thinking, debating “why it happened” most certainly does. There is, for example, a scholarly debate regarding the origins of the Holocaust, with intentionalists like Lucy Dawidowicz, on one side, arguing that there was a master plan by Hitler to launch the Holocaust, and functionalists like Christopher Browning, on the other, arguing that it emerged from within the lower ranks of the Nazi bureaucracy. However, at the eighth-grade level, students’ focus should be on key historical facts and events, not advanced academic debates.

There is plenty of room in the classroom for critical thinking, but there is no room for misinformation and bias. This is one of the reasons the Institute for Curriculum Services is committed to promoting accuracy in classroom materials with regard to Jews, Judaism and Israel, ensuring that millions of K-12 students in the United States receive the best education possible. ICS will continue to set the record straight. It is incumbent upon all of us to stay informed and to pay attention to what our children are learning at school.

Aliza Craimer Elias is the director of the Institute for Curriculum Services (www.icsresources.org), a joint national initiative of the S.F.-based JCRC and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.