Thus I was extremely concerned when I heard a news report about a local school district near my home that has come under fire for assigning a critical thinking research project to its eight grade students. The assignment reads, "When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence," according to the LA Daily News web site.1 The assignment goes on to say that there are those who deny the holocaust as an actual historical event, and the students were to gather evidence and write a paper arguing why they believe the holocaust was either real or propaganda.2
The Los Angeles Anti-Defamation League has objected to the assignment and complained to district officials.3 Spokesman Matthew Friedman stated, "To have students try and determine whether or not it happened, they're gonna go online and they're going to Google the Holocaust and come across sites that look very slick and very persuasive, but are really bad history and propaganda for anti-Semites, and that's not what we want them to be doing."
I must say that Friedman's and the ADL's objection falls flat. Do I think there is any doubt that the Holocaust happened? Of course not. Do I think such a research project is dangerous for eighth-graders? On the contrary, I think NOT teaching them how to weed good arguments from bad ones is. In the Internet age, we're awash in faulty arguments and bad logic. Kids today need to learn how to separate what is written from what is true. Friedman's concern that kids will come across sites "that look very slick and very persuasive, but are really bad history and propaganda" is moot. They are seeing them now, and not just with the issue of the holocaust. Isn't it better to show why "slick and persuasive" doesn't make a view true than to forbid exposure to any opinion deemed unworthy by… who exactly? Don't we want our kids to know that other views exist, even if those views are foolhardy?
There are many examples of the ruling power only presenting a single point of view and dismissing all others as "foolish" or "not worth considering." That's the first step to establishing a culture of propaganda. Even if the position is as ridiculous as denying the holocaust, it is important to show that we don't need to hide certain views, but expose them to the light of scrutiny. Thomas Jefferson is claimed to have said "The man who fears no truth has nothing to fear from lies."4 Any fool with a modem and an opinion can post online; how are our children supposed to learn how to weed through the junk so they can find the truth, especially if that truth may not be held by the majority? It is restricting thought rather than investigating it that I fear more.
2 The assignment text 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."
3 Powell, Amy. "Rialto Unified School District under fire over Holocaust assignment." KABC 7 Eyewitness News Report. http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/inland_empire&id=9527060 Accessed 5/5/2014.
4 Boller,Jr. Paul F. Presidential Campaigns from George Washington to George W. Bush. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).19.