Saturday, April 13, 2013

How Anti-Racism Makes You Stupid

Ken Kersch

When noble sentiments congeal into bovine orthodoxy, the results often aren’t pretty – as any thoughtful person drawing a paycheck from an educational institution these days should know.

So, according to Jesse McKinley, of the New York Times, “this week, students at Albany High School were given an alarming thought puzzle: How do I convince my teacher that I think Jews are evil?” The screaming headline to the article was: “Student Told to Write From a Nazi View: Essays Were to Find that Jews Were Evil.” After a parent complained, the virtuous – including the superintendent of schools Dr. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, and a local Rabbi -- were trotted out, expressing shock and dismay. We are assured that the teacher is likely to face disciplinary action, if not simply fired.

Me, I’d fire Dr. Vanden Wyngaard, whose ilk in education these days are, sadly, a dime a dozen.

The exercise proposed by the teacher in which, after a period of instruction on the subject, the students were asked to imagine themselves as Nazis, seems to me a standard way of effectively teaching history generally, and intellectual history in particular. This includes the teaching of the history of thought that many of us find odious and unacceptable. When I teach about slavery and segregation, we read pro-slavery and pro-segregationist thought. When I teach about those opposed to same-sex marriage, I teach Roman Catholic theology of the body and fundamentalist Christian readings of Scripture. This is because it is extremely important – critical – that students understand the nature of ideology, and the real power of its logics. It is all too easy to simply lay down a rule that a certain conclusion (e.g. racism, homophobia) is wrong. But the rule of thumb approach to bad opinions deprives students of a deep understanding of how it is that people can actually hold those views, and still go to church and sleep well at night -- to understand themselves to be doing the right thing. Besides making students shallower people where it comes to understanding history and political and social thought, it make them shallower in the understanding of themselves: only by seeing how odious and unjust ideas issue from sophisticated and powerful logics (typically in conjunction with intense emotions), can they begin to feel the necessity of continually examining themselves, asking how in their own time and place they might be following similar logics and scripts, both time-tested and new. Learning how others think – including badly -- is a critical part of learning to think effectively themselves.

I recognize that there are issues with engaging such an exercise with tenth graders – though I do think that, at that age, they are old enough to begin undertaking this sort of exercise. For this sort of teaching to work, of course, it must be done well – and not as a slapdash, stand-alone assignment. But, there is, in principle, nothing wrong with this sort of intellectual exercise. For my money, when done well, it is the very best way of teaching the subject.

There were those in Albany who seemed to get this, including another local Rabbi, Donald Cashman, and some students at the school. They are right. For this teacher to be disciplined, besides being unconstitutional, would be an affront to the principles of academic and intellectual freedom – and, no less important, a step backwards in the fight against anti-semitism and other forms of bigotry.

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