Holocaust Denial, Evolution Denial, and “Teaching the Controversy”

Should students learn to think critically in schools?  Should they learn about both sides of controversial issues?  This morning at the National Center for Science Education blog, Glenn Branch compares creationists’ fondness for “teaching the controversy” to an explosively controversial history lesson from California.  For those of us interested in conservative ideas about schooling, this recent flap again demonstrates the ways “conservative” and “progressives” have swapped sides on this issue.

In the Rialto (California) Unified School District, eighth-grade students were asked to evaluate the arguments for and against the existence of the Holocaust.  “When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence,” the assignment reads, according to the San Bernardino County Sun.

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.

When the story came out about ten days ago, some conservative pundits tried to use this as proof of the moral monstrosity concealed in the Common Core State Standards.  The standards, some said, pushed school districts into adopting such terrible ideas as Holocaust denial.

Glenn Branch asks a different question.  How is this example of teaching “critical thinking” any different from creationist attempts to have students evaluate evolution and creationism side by side?  In both cases, students are encouraged to look at evidence.  Students are prompted to evaluate arguments and come to their own decisions.

But in the case of Holocaust denial, one side of the balance sheet has been thoroughly discredited.  It is not morally or educationally appropriate to ask students to decide whether or not the Holocaust happened, critics insist.  One of the sources students were given in this assignment stated the following:

With all this money at stake for Israel, it is easy to comprehend why this Holocaust hoax is so secretly guarded. In whatever way you can, please help shatter this profitable myth. It is time we stop sacrificing America’s welfare for the sake of Israel and spend our hard-earned dollars on Americans.

Offering students these sorts of false, hateful lies as “sources,” critics say, demeans the idea of pushing students to think critically.  If creationists thought that students should really explore every side of every issue, even sides with no intellectual or moral legitimacy, Branch argues,

then they should have been enthusiastically supporting the Rialto assignment. It’s to their moral credit that they weren’t, of course, but it proves—as if proof were needed by now—that “teach the controversy” and the like are merely rhetorical legerdemain intended to distract the spectator from the intellectual hollowness of the proposals they are supposed to support.

To suggest that schools ought to “teach the controversy” when there is in fact no controversy among mainstream scientists, Branch concludes, is just as bogus as having students evaluate the claims of Holocaust deniers.

The historian in me can’t help but notice the flip-flop we’ve seen over the course of the twentieth century.  In 1925, it was the pro-evolution side who pleaded with America to consider both sides in public schools.  Most famously, Scopes-trial attorney Dudley Field Malone begged the nation to allow the teaching of evolution.  “For God’s sake,” Malone implored, “let the children have their minds kept open.”  Ironically, as historian Ronald Numbers pointed out in Darwin Comes to America (pg. 91), later creationists adopted Malone’s plea as their own.

This is one of the themes I’m working with in my upcoming book.  Back in the 1920s, it was the conservative side of school battles who protested that these were false choices.  In 1929, for instance, the staunchly conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution warned DAR members that progressives sneakily insisted on teaching both sides of every issue.  Such choices, she warned, were false ones.  Even to ask the questions tipped students away from truth and morality.  As she memorably argued,

Flagrant cases of un-American tendencies have been brought to light and exposed.  Exotic theories are promulgated in the name of science.  Disdain for law and order, and contempt for our accepted form of Government are subtly injected into the teachings of history.  Such practices are defended by the advancement of the decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions.  This may be the proper system for the seasoned adult who presumably can, if he will, revoke his errors when faced with the consequences of an unwise choice.  With the young, the chances are too great, for there a dangerous inequality exists.  One does not place before a delicate child a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.  Instead, one carefully supplies only what will make for the development of the young body and assure its normal growth.  Why then apply the very opposite theory when dealing with the delicate and impressionable fabric of the mind? (Emphasis added.)

With this historical lens, it seems doubly apparent that the argument for teaching both sides of any tricky issue has always been politically popular among Americans.  If there’s a controversy, many Americans have always agreed, let children hear both sides.

Back in the 1920s, progressives and evolution educators tried to make this case.  Let children hear about socialism and evolution, progressives pleaded.  At least allow schools to teach the controversy.  Back then, conservatives made the case that one side of those ideas was not equal.  To offer students both candy and cigars to choose from, as our DAR leader insisted, was a false choice, a false controversy.

Today, the sides have switched but the argument has not.  One side argues to let children hear both sides of a controversial issue and decide for themselves.  The other side insists that only one side has any truth, any intellectual legitimacy.

Me personally, I agree that Holocaust denial and evolution denial ought not be offered as equals to better history and better science.  But I know many readers might disagree.  How can creationists defend the legitimacy of “teaching the controversy” when most scientists agree that there is no controversy?  Is it like offering children a choice between heroin and citrus fruits?  Milk and coffee?  Candy or cigars?

 

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3 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  May 16, 2014

    I understand how shocked people are about this assignment, I really do. What I can’t help wondering, though, is that if positions like this have to be refuted, then someone needs to know how to go about refuting them. If Holocaust deniers have to be argued against, then people need to know how to make that argument. If the evidence is overwhelming that it happened (as it is), why not let kids discover for themselves just how overwhelming it is? I’m not sure I agree that this amounts to giving the denying side equal credence. It’s not a matter of giving anyone credence, it’s a matter of teaching kids how to refute knuckleheads and crackpots; how to tell valid evidence from crackpot evidence, reliable sources from crackpot sources, etc. Isn’t it?

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  2. I think teaching students to think critically (even by teaching the controversy) is a good idea if that is what’s being done. Just being thrown a bunch of sources without any background on how to evaluate them, however, is not so good. My experience is that it was more often the latter than the former, so I remain skeptical of any idea of teaching the controversy without fundamental alterations to the entire curriculum to encompass critical thinking as a whole.

    Granted, I was in school almost half a decade ago in the UK, but I haven’t heard much in the way of improvements.

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  3. I’ve been offline for a couple of weeks, so I am playing “catch up” here. Both of the above commentators make good points. We really do not know if the students have been exposed to the idea of what critical thinking is and how to apply it. Just to focus on one assignment and run with it isn’t good reporting, in my opinion. I teach the eighth grade in CCD, and the level of maturity varies widely within this age group. I think the assignment is better suited for upper class high school students, after receiving a few years of critical thinking skills training under their belts. Good article.

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