An Unacceptable ‘Critical Thinking’ Assignment

Two months ago, Hamodia reported that in California’s Rialto Unified School District, eighth-grade students were given a “critical thinking” writing assignment that involved writing an essay and answering questions based on a topic and source materials provided. The topic given was whether “the Holocaust is not an actual event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain.”

At the time, Hamodia reached out to the school district, and a staff member at the school (who asked not to be named as he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media) insisted that “It was pulled. … As soon as the Superintendent [Mohammad Z. Islam] heard of it, he instructed that it be changed.”

It turns out that, if it was indeed pulled, it was pulled too late.

That turned out not to be true.

Documents released this week, obtained by local news media, prove that despite indications to the contrary, the assignment was indeed given to students, and that a troubling number of them had written justifying Holocaust denial. A review of the assignment itself only raises more questions as to what the educators behind this exercise might have been thinking.

The students were given sources to support either “viewpoint” and were told to read and analyze these “credible sources.” They had to answer questions based on these sources, and then write an “argumentative essay” using those sources.

The assignment contained 18 pages of instructions and suggested sources, including a website that claimed the gas chambers were “a profitable hoax.” It cited a Fred E. Leuchter, described as “America’s leading specialist on the design and fabrication of execution equipment, including homicidal gas chambers,” as having said that there were no gas chambers.

In reality, Leuchter, who has presented himself as an expert in engineering,  specializing in gas chambers and executions, has no engineering degree. Nor does he have formal training in toxicology, chemistry or biology.

Presenting his findings as those of a credible expert, however, can surely sway impressionable young minds, most of whom had presumably never met a Holocaust survivor.

It is obvious that to some teachers of students who turned in papers that denied the Holocaust, it was not a big deal at all, with one teacher writing that the student “did well using the evidence to support your claim.”

There is obviously something very wrong in the Rialto Unified School District, and it is something bigger than any one individual.

Holocaust denial has often been closely tied to anti-Semitism. In the recently released ADL Global 100 study, one can see that the countries that have a higher number than others of Holocaust deniers have a higher number of anti-Semites as well. Whether it is a cause or an effect can be a subject for debate (or an “argumentative writing assignment”), but the correlation definitely exists. The ADL methodology used to determine whether an area suffered from anti-Semitism was to ask four questions, one of which was “Do you think that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust?”

If young, pliable students are encouraged by their teachers to entertain the notion that the Holocaust never happened and are presented with “evidence” arguing that position, the natural and logical next step is that the students will think that “Jews talk about the Holocaust too much.” That is a likely cause for them to harbor feelings of resentment toward us.

Administrators who find out that educators are persuading children to be open to denial shouldn’t react by obfuscating and allowing things to continue in the same vein. It isn’t a matter of canceling one assignment or even firing the person responsible for it. This was a district-wide assignment that teachers saw no problem assigning and grading; something that included language urging students to “Please help shatter this profitable myth” of the Holocaust. If an assignment had been given asking students to argue for and against any liberal cause célèbre, one can only imagine the hue and cry that would have ensued.

The district responded to complaints in May by saying that eighth-grade teachers will undergo sensitivity training at the Museum of Tolerance and that students will visit the museum as well. A welcome step, no doubt. But the underlying problem that can cause a mistake of this magnitude would seem to require a much bigger solution than just a visit to a museum by teachers and students. It would require reevaluation of anyone in the administration who thought this wasn’t that big a deal. It would require soul searching by parents who believe, as one Rialto school board member said, that “…teaching how to come to your own conclusion based on the facts [and] then defend your belief with a lucid argument is essential.”

Because teaching children that it is OK to deny the Holocaust is no less than teaching them that it is OK to hate Jews — which is apparently OK, so long as you can “defend your belief with a lucid argument.”