Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Trouble with Public Schools: Trying to Imagine the Nazi Point of View

Mad Dog begs the reader's indulgence:  Let it be understood, Mad Dog attended public schools until he matriculated at a private college. One of Mad Dog's sons went to public schools, the other to private schools from high school through college.

So Mad Dog claims experience in both realms, and no particular emotional attachment to either.

In today's New York Times is an article about a high school teacher in Albany, New York who assigned her class the task of writing a "persuasive piece"  using traditional high school essay structure (5 paragraphs: introduction, 3 paragraphs, conclusion)  as an argument to a Nazi teacher "Jews are the source of our problems."  "You must argue Jews are evil and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!"

Now, of course, no analysis is on firm ground without knowing the facts, and we do not have all the facts in this newspaper report.  Did the teacher give the students other options?  Could they in fact choose some other topic designed to make them think in terms which most current Americans find repugnant?  Did the teacher preface the assignment with a discussion of what the Nazis espoused, the history and outcomes of their time in power?  What, in short, was the context of the assignment? Did students object? What was the response to their objections? And what did she mean by "solid rationale?" What does anyone mean by that? 

All we know is Maruertie Vanden Wynagaard, the superintendent of Albany's schools said, "Obviously, we have a severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity."

Obviously, we have Ms. Wynagaard concerned to protect her own job, but it is not at all obvious we have a lack of judgment.

Rabbi Eligberg said, "The assignment was flawed in its essence. It asks students to take the product for a propaganda machine and treat it as legitimate fodder for a rational argument. And that's just wrong."

Actually, not. 

Clearly, the rabbi does not like the exercise of mind games. The rabbi wants only to hear, "This is wrong."  He is made uncomfortable by or has never attempted, the exercise of inhabiting "evil," living in its skin, getting its feel, moving within it.

 Mad Dog has on occasion tried to get into the mind of really freaky people:  Republicans like Paul Ryan, various Texas and South Carolina senators and Congressmen, Rand Paul, Mitch McConnell, and even, yes, people like Joseph Goebbels and Adolph Hitler, and Henry Ford (author of "The International Jew.")  It is a clinically useful exercise: Imagine I am a germ. What would I do? What would give me pleasure and what would I seek? 

In law school, I am told, students are made to argue for the defense and then assume the role of the prosecutor. It's a way of making them identify the types of arguments made and to understand the vulnerabilities of these arguments. It is a way to prepare oneself for the fight.

But in public schools, students and teachers alike have to be always mindful of "how it would look"  or "how that might sound" if some politically unpopular or incorrect statement leaks out from the classroom into the press or general public.

The superintendent, we are told, met with "Jewish leaders" in Albany to assure them she did not endorse the Third Reich, Adolph Hitler or anti Semitic sentiments. 

All this sounds very familiar to Mad Dog. By the time he finished 12th grade, he was convinced his teachers, with some happy exceptions, were mediocrities and not smart enough to teach their much more intelligent students.

The whole dreary exercise of form over content--5 paragraphs. Why five?  Introduction, conclusion. What is so important about that? What makes that form "good?"  

In college, where the professors were not looking over their shoulders, the discussions were so much more intelligent and relevant and deeply cutting.  There was no superintendent meeting with community leaders to reassure everyone children in classrooms were not being taught Nazi doctrine as received truth.

Mad Dog has often fantasized about what if? What if, in a former life, Mad Dog had been a Hitler Youth? An SS trooper? A concentration camp guard?  What would that have felt like? How would he have dealt with the cruelty? 

Mad Dog realized it might have begun with love, of all things. Listen to Hitler's speeches and notice how much time he spends building a picture of beauty, an imagined world of blond, blue eyed, healthy, smiling, happy boys and girls, those darlings of the Third Reich who will sweep away the badness and replace it with purity.  All those efforts to breed beautiful blond girls with beautiful blond boys. And the movies of those Aryan youths--it's all so euphoric and Hitler riding by, standing in an open automobile, arm straight out and women thronging to him, arms outstretched in ecstatic salutes; they are weeping with joy.

 You are taught to love, to desire, blond hair, white skin. That can look so clean. And after the mud and grime of WWI trenches, clean must have  been a very sacred thing. Then you see people who dress in black and wear long curls for sideburns and who do not look like that blond ideal. Can you feel the repulsion?  But what of their children? Do you not feel badly murdering the children?  Well, but children grow up.

You get the idea: You can, by suspending your own conditioned responses, get to a new place and see the world, however tendentiously, from behind different lenses.  

And you can use that knowledge: When Mad Dog was an intern, working on a ward where people were dying in droves every day, he and everyone he worked with, became inured to the significance of death and physical destruction. As nurses wrapped bodies, they chatted about which bar they were going to after work. And Mad Dog recognized:  We are no longer even seeing these people we are packaging. He could see that because he had imagined that kind of behavior before. 

And from that perspective, you can achieve a new power to attack the flaws in the thinking, the perceptions. 

In his own life, Mad Dog was raised as a white child among people who were soul mates to the Nazis.  White Southern racists, who earnestly told you swimming in the same swimming pool as Blacks would infect you, for whom the idea of a white girl dancing with a black boy at a school dance was nothing less than miscegenation,   for whom homosexuality was a sin against God, for whom Catholics were suspect, Jews barely tolerated pariahs, and the best life on earth was for two white Christian people, boy and girl, to meet in high school, marry after college and produce three little pure white children who would repeat the cycle.

So anything which rattles a cage strikes Mad Dog as a step in the right direction. That cannot happen in schools which are publicly funded, politicized, where teachers must teach to the tests to satisfy the political postures of downtown politicians, schools  run by careerists who care only for their own jobs and naught for something as lofty as opening young minds.


  1. Mad Dog,
    Well I'm with you, there's truth in the adage"to know your enemy you must become your enemy".( Although I must confess I haven't been as intellectually adventurous as you- I've yet to try and get into the mind of Hitler or McConnell). Most likely the point of the teacher's assignment was for the students to see how fear, misinformation and prejudice can corrupt individuals as well as a whole society. Since when is that is a lesson we don't want our high school students to grasp? That she could possibly face termination is such over-kill, hopefully more in the community will refuse to jump on the PC bandwagon and come out in her defense.

    I think you are right that the Brad Paisley/LL Cool J song "Accidental Racist" misses the mark when it presumes you can separate the Confederate flag from the principles of the Confederacy, however, don't you think it's biggest transgression is how bad a song it is? Of course I can't go along with some of it's critics that compare it to "Ebony and Ivory"-"Accidental Racist " is run of the mill bad where "Ebony and Ivory", in my mind, is tied with Manilow's " I Write the Songs" for most nauseating song ever written- they are what's being played continuously in hell--"Accidental Racist" doesn't even come close to that level of bad...

    Are you planning on watching the Ken Burns documentary, The Central Park Five tomorrow night on PBS--looks like it was well done...

  2. Maud,

    "I write the Songs" played in continuous loop in Hell, now there is a thought which could make the most recalcitrant sinner change his ways. Fire and brimstone--nothing to Barry Manilow.

    Mad Dog

  3. Maud,

    Yes, I will watch or record it. Mostly, I'm intrigued about what this says about our "system of justice." What goes on after the strip searches?

    Mad Dog