A response by state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia about a controversial high school lesson on the Holocaust prompted a call for her resignation from a local lawmaker Friday.
Republican state Sen. Jim Tedisco called for Elia to resign after what he felt was her inadequate response to a question about an assignment asking students to “argue for …” the Holocaust.
During a visit to Syracuse this week, Elia was asked about the assignment. She said she didn’t know the “circumstances” and argued students need to learn critical thinking skills. Tedisco said her response should have unequivocally denounced any assignment asking students to defend the Holocaust.
Students in an Oswego County BOCES New Vision class were asked to put themselves in the shoes of Nazi leaders and argue “for or against the Final Solution, using the arguments of the top level officials of the Nazi party.” Half the class was supposed to argue for the Holocaust while the others were supposed to argue against it.
A “caveat” at the end of the assignment said “the point of this activity is not for you to be sympathetic to the Nazi point of view” but rather to force students “outside your comfort zone” and “training your brain to logistically find the evidence necessary to prove a point, even if it is existentially and philosophically against what you believe.”
A pair of students told the Syracuse Post Standard they felt “weird” and were “disturbed” by the assignment. The students also took their concerns to the teacher, administrators and the Anti-Defamation League, which told the Post Standard the assignment was “deeply troubling.” The teacher offered students an alternative assignment, but the program leaders did not retract the assignment as the students had requested, according to the Post Standard.
While in Syracuse on Thursday for a roundtable and classroom visit, reporters asked Elia about the assignment. “I don’t know the circumstances of that,” she said, according to audio of her response provided by a state Education Department spokeswoman. After a reporter told her the students “were asked to defend the Holocaust,” she reiterated she didn’t know the context of the question or the class.
She then argued that students need to learn critical thinking skills and how to evaluate information and facts.
“Clearly what we need to teach our students is critical thinking, and we need to teach them how to analyze the arguments and the positions and the facts that are out there,” Elia said. “I think it’s a really important thing that we have critical thinkers, critical readers, who look at everything, who ask for the facts.”
But Tedisco said her immediate response to the question should have been resolute and straight to the point: No. Students should never be asked to defend the Holocaust, he said.
“The answer is: It’s unacceptable, no one should defend the side of the Nazis in the Holocaust,” Tedisco said in an interview after his spokesman blasted out an email that said “Elia must resign for not condemning student assignment to defend Nazis.”
Tedisco said he was still calling on Elia to resign unless she could prove she had immediately denounced the assignment when asked about it. He said there is no way to justify an assignment that asks students to defend the Nazis and the Holocaust.
“She didn’t condone it, no,” Tedisco said. “She didn’t speak out against that either; she didn’t say that was unacceptable … The answer to the question of the reporter is not to move on to talk about critical thinking; the first answer is if a teacher asked students to articulate a position of the Nazis, that is unacceptable.”
Emily DeSantis, assistant commissioner for public affairs, said Friday evening that Elia has still not seen the actual assignment provided to students and pointed out that Elia “clearly said she was not familiar with the circumstance of the assignment and did not in any way condone the assignment.”
“She expressed that students should be critical thinkers who can analyze different arguments and positions to get to the real facts so they can make their own judgments,” DeSantis said in a prepared statement. “Undoubtedly students should learn about the Holocaust and its devastating effects.”
The imperative for educators to teach students strong critical thinking skills was cited as the defense in a recent flap over a lesson in a Saratoga Springs social studies class that asked students to analyze a political cartoon that compared President Donald Trump to Adolph Hitler and fascist Benito Mussolini.