Upstate New York students debate exterminating Jews
The New York education commissioner defended a local teacher's assignment asking students to argue in favor of exterminating Jews. It sounds incomprehensible, but MaryEllen Elia, speaking in Syracuse, N.Y. (Onondaga County) this past Thursday morning, did just that. It seems especially hideous, contemporarily, since that city's Jewish Community Center has been under lockdown three times this year: twice for bomb threats and most recently for a vaguely described "threat of violence."
The education commissioner was addressing an assignment given by a teacher in neighboring Oswego County this past February. The teacher, Michael DeNobile, gave the assignment as part of the Oswego County CiTi/BOCES New Vision program. According to local reporter Julie McMahon, the students were asked to "put themselves in a Nazi leaders' shoes and argue for or against the 'Final Solution' to exterminate Jewish people."
It seems that only two students were disturbed by this request. Jordan April and Archer Shurtliff (neither are Jewish) are both seniors at Oswego County high schools participating in the New Vision program. The program allows students to take college-level classes on the SUNY Oswego campus. April and Shurtliff brought their concerns directly to DeNobile, higher administrators, and even the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The two girls' goal was "to make sure no other student would be asked to argue in favor of killing Jews again." They also asked for the New Vision program to retract the assignment completely. They were unsuccessful. In exchange for their complaints, however, the entire class was given the opportunity to choose their own alternative project. Only three students took advantage of that, including April and Shurtliff.
Education commissioner Elia held strong to her support of the assignment, citing critical thinking as the supposed learning tool, saying, "I think it's certainly a question where you want students to think on both sides and analyze ... which position a person is taking." Student Archer Shurtliff, in a separate interview, stated conversely that "it's settled opinion[.] ... [Y]ou can't say that Jews deserve to die. It should be a settled thing."
Dogged local reporter McMahon posted the actual homework assignment on Syracuse's online news website. Eerily, it was stamped "Top Secret" in red at the top. McMahon writes:
The assignment itself notes that the point is "not for you to be sympathetic to the Nazi point of view[.] ... Ultimately, this is an exercise on expanding your point of view by going outside your comfort zone and training your brain to logistically [sic] find the evidence necessary to prove a point, even if it is existentially and philosophically against what you believe," the assignment says.
(Ironically, Oswego County is home to "Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum," which commemorates America's only refugee camp for victims of WWII. In 1944, nearly 1,000 refugees were housed in the army barracks there as "guests" of President Roosevelt. According to previous newspaper reports, approximately 900 of them were Jewish. Strangely, the words "Jew" and "Jewish" are apparently mentioned only once on the museum's website.)
ADL education director Beth Martinez said the whole thing is "deeply troubling," adding that students should never be given an assignment "that even hints at their [sic] being 'two sides' to the 'Final Solution' / Holocaust." Martinez said she was notified by Roseann Bayne, the assistant superintendent for the CiTi program, that the assignment was still being offered along with an alternative.
Martinez cited Common Core as a catalyst for pushing students to argue from a perspective from which they do not agree. This sounds benign at first glance – until you see an example like this, where a student is asked to justify mass murder as part of a learning experience. One can only hope such a thing would be outside most people's "comfort zone" and remain there.
The fight is definitely not over for two 17-year-old girls who had the guts to take on a monumental task: teaching some seriously misguided adults that "critical thinking" does not mean abandoning all human decency at the schoolhouse door.
Susan D. Harris can be reached at www.susandharris.com.