The “America First Exhibit” at the Holocaust Museum

US Holocaust Museum in Washington

My forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump devotes several pages to Trump’s use of the phrase “America First.”  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust” was not yet open when I was writing these pages, but if it had been open I am sure a quick trip to Washington D.C. would have inspired some of my writing on this topic.

Over at The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen reviews the new exhibit. Here is a taste:

This might all be an occasion for mere brooding about the past, were there not some jarring echoes for today. The isolationist organization America First gets its share of attention here, and deservedly so. Launched in September 1940, it soon built up a membership of over 800,000. Led by the retired general and business executive Robert Wood, its most charismatic spokesman was the heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh, a strange but inflammatory hero for the isolationists, who was not beyond the occasional Jew-baiting himself. America First opposed the Atlantic Charter issued by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941 after their meeting off Newfoundland, presumably including clauses like the pledge to respect the right to self-government. It captured the imaginations of some privileged young men, to include a couple of future presidents and assorted intellectual luminaries. It vanished into thin air after Pearl Harbor, and many of the young men who supported it, like John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, changed their views in later years.

America First is, because of its discreditable history, a disreputable slogan, which has not prevented President Trump from embracing it and subordinates who know better from defending it. In so doing, they unwittingly undermine their other slogan, “Make America Great Again,” because the America of the 1930s was not all that great. There were—as we have been reminded by the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—the pitiless murders of African Americans by lynch mobs. There were scores of such killings in the 1930s. There was casual and open bigotry and discrimination against Jews and other religious and ethnic groups. If Roosevelt proclaimed the Four Freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union address—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—the great objectives of the struggle that impended, it was not because America was contentedly enjoying them and wished to share in their bounty, but because he knew that they had to be fought for, at home and abroad simultaneously.

Read the entire review here.

When School Districts Do Not Understand Historical Thinking

An Albany, New York teacher was placed on leave and will face disciplinary action and possible termination because she/he asked students to try to understand the mentality of the Nazis during the Holocaust.  Here was the writing assignment that the teacher gave to his/her high school English students:

For the following assignment, you need to pretend that I am a member of the government in Nazi, Germany, and you are being challenged to convince me that you are loyal to the Nazis by writing an essay convincing me that Jews are evil and the source of our problems.  After viewing the videos…and reading a packet of propaganda, combine that knowledge with what you learned in history class and through any experiences you have to complete this task.

Since this is a persuasive piece, you need to choose from the types of rhetorical arguments we covered in quarter 1, in writing your commentaries about religious freedom, freedom of religious expression, etc.  Review in your notebooks the definitions of LOGOS, ETHOS, and PATHOSChoose which style will be most effective in making your point.  Please remember that your life (here in Nazi Germany in the 30s) may depend on it!

Your essay must be 5 paragraphs long, with an introduction, 3 body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion.  You do not have a choice in your position, you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!… 

(Apparently the school’s social studies curriculum requires some blending of English and History).

Though I would avoid the line about Jews being “evil,” and I am not sure what the instructor means by the reference to “any experiences you have,” I actually think that this is an excellent assignment.  It teaches students historical thinking skills by challenging them to understand the world from a different perspective.  Through this assignment they might learn how to empathize with the theologians, politicians, and other German leaders who believed that the Holocaust was necessary.  I think the Holocaust was one of the greatest tragedies in world history, but I would want my own children, when they have reached an appropriate age, to grapple with an assignment such as this.  (I would also want them to write an essay that asks them to use primary documents to understand the experience of a Jew who lived through the Holocaust).

As I argue in my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, empathy requires the historian or the student of history to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms and not ours. As historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”  (The Landscape of History, 124).  The practice of empathy may be the hardest part of being a historian.  It requires an act of the imagination. The practice of bracketing our own  ways of seeing the world in order to understand a past world that is different often requires discipline on the part of the historian.

Empathy, of course, differs from sympathy. Empathy is all about understanding. It is an attempt to discover why a particular individual in the past acted in the way that he or she did. Sympathy, however, carries a deeper moral component than empathy. The sympathetic person develops an emotional attachment to his or her subject that can sometimes make empathy difficult and might even get in the way of an accurate historical interpretation.

To illustrate the differences between empathy and sympathy, let me relay a conversation I had a few years ago with my then 8th-grade daughter. Allyson had just finished reading Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, in her American Studies class. Published in 1861, the book tells the story of how Jacobs was physically and sexually abused by her master and, in an attempt to escape the torture, hid for roughly seven years in a storeroom crawlspace. I was slightly concerned about the fact that Allyson would be reading this primary source, but I trusted her teacher–a former Gilder-Lehrman History Teacher of the Year–to make sure the lesson was handled in a sensitive way.

Allyson returned home from school emotionally shaken by Jacobs’s story. This was her first exposure to such a graphic slave narrative. Her response was outrage, anger, and sadness. She sympathized with the plight of Jacobs, but she was unable to empathize—to rid herself of what she perceived as the moral injustice done to this slave woman. She failed to fully understand the world of the nineteenth-century South in which Jacobs lived. My daughter developed an emotional connection with Jacobs, and I was glad that she did. She grew as a moral being through the reading of the narrative. But she was unable to understand Jacobs historically because sympathy kept getting in the way. This, of course, should be expected from a middle school student.  Historical thinking of this nature requires intellectual maturity. I think most high school students should be mature enough to engage in this kind of thinking about the past, even if it relates to the Holocaust, but I am happy to defer here to an expert in adolescent development.

It seems clear to me that this Albany High School teacher was not trying to get students to sympathize with Nazi doctrines, he or she was trying to get students to empathize with the Nazis.  Using the Holocaust to teach these kinds of skills requires great sensitivity, especially for students who have direct family connections to the event.  Any discussion of the Holocaust should take place in a classroom context that acknowledges the moral atrocities of an event like this.  If this was the teacher’s first attempt to get the student to practice historical empathy, he or she could have picked a different subject.  But I have a hunch that he/she has done these kinds of assignments before, with other topics, and felt the students were ready to apply the skills of historical empathy to the Holocaust.  (We need to hear from this teacher.  Right now the press and the various blog commentators are demonizing him/her without hearing his/her side of the story).

What happened in Albany does not seem to be a case of indoctrination, but a case of a teacher trying to get students to understand both sides of a historical event.

If the Albany School District wants to be consistent, they should forbid their American history teachers from assigning essays that challenge students to understand the mindset of Puritans who burned witches, the Paxton Boys who slaughtered Indians on the Pennsylvania frontier, the slaveholders who justified slavery based on the teachings of the Bible, and the anti-immigrant leagues who persecuted Catholic immigrants.  Should I stop asking my students (freshman, I might add) to wrestle with the ideas behind the cruelty of Henry Auld or Mr. Covey in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Perhaps asking a student to empathize with the Nazis is in a different category–a more atrocious category–than the examples I have listed above.  I am willing to be persuaded that this is the case. But the Holocaust is still part of the past and must be taught in all its fullness, complexity, and horror.  I would even argue that this teacher’s assignment will enable students to make more informed, and thus more powerful, criticisms of the Holocaust.

I think the Albany School District and the Anti-Defamation league need to do some reading on how to teach historical thinking. This is a history education issue, not a racial, religious, or ethnic sensitivity issue.  (Unless, of course, the teacher is a neo-Nazi and was indeed using the assignment to promote neo-Nazi ideology, though I doubt that this was the case).

Since I wrote this piece I ran across Boston University’s Stephen Prothero’s take on this case. I am in full agreement with it.  Here is a taste:

I suppose it is possible that the teacher is a closet Nazi attempting to reconstruct the Third Reich in Albany. But isn’t it more likely that he or she is trying to teach students about the dangers of propaganda and the horrors of the Holocaust?

Consider the student who felt “horrible” about doing this assignment. Is that really a bad thing? How are high school students today supposed to feel about Nazism and the Holocaust? 

Apparently, what they are supposed to feel (and think) is nothing, because the lesson high school teachers are going to take away from this fiasco is to avoid this topic at all costs, lest they risk losing their jobs. 

When I was an assistant professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I used to teach Nazi theology. My students read sermons by Nazi theologians arguing that Jews were evil and were responsible for killing Jesus. They also read a book called “Theologians Under Hitler” by Robert P. Erickson, who tried to explain how and why Christian thinkers could come to believe that exterminating Jews was somehow Christ-like. 

I am not a Nazi. I was not teaching Nazi theology as the truth. I was teaching it as propaganda, just like this Albany High School teacher was doing. My purpose was not to make my students sympathetic to Nazism. My purpose was to unsettle them. And to teach them something along the way…

…How can students learn that without digging into the primary materials? And how better to wrestle with those primary materials than by constructing a persuasive essay built upon them? 

If I were teaching at Albany High School I might have worded this assignment a little differently. But it’s a terrific assignment, and one that should be used at more high schools across the country. To far too many American youth, the Holocaust is an echo of an echo. Assignments like this bring it alive in all its horrors.

But students aren’t the only victims of the failure of imagination we are now witnessing among Albany school officials and Jewish leaders. The teacher is a victim, too. And so are public school teachers across the country who are being told via this fiasco not to be creative as teachers, not to challenge their students to think in new ways. 

If this teacher is fired, I will invite him or her to Boston University, where I now teach, to explain what he or she was trying to accomplish in challenging students with this assignment. And I will give the same assignment to my college students. I think it will do them some good.

This entire case, especially the outraged comments all over the Internet and blogosphere, remind me just how much our country needs a good long lesson in historical thinking.