What I Do When My Students Praise Hitler

Teachers aren’t supposed to be political, but we have to be.

Photo by Jenni Jones on Unsplash

One of my students started praising Hitler during a class discussion. It was the first time he’d talked all semester, a few days after the 2016 election. “He was a great leader, just with really different ideas.” Yeah, I guess genocide counts as a really different idea.

Fortunately, a few students spoke up. They asked how he defined a “great leader.” Because in most ways, Hitler wasn’t one.

So we talked about Hitler for a few minutes. Yeah, in an English class. Even though it wasn’t my job — technically. Even though I’m not an expert on history, WWII, or Germany. Even though I’m untenured.

It’s a sad day when you worry about getting fired for expressing your views, as a teacher, on Nazis.

But I’ve always loved a good risk. So we took the plunge. My class discussed Hitler’s style of persuasion, how he mainly whipped people into a frenzy and stoked their worst inclinations. Hate. Fear. Tribalism.

All the stuff Yoda told us to avoid.

We concluded that a good leader doesn’t plunge his country into war, and exterminate his own people. Then I went back to my office and waited for the administrative blowback. None came. Whew.

Some people might say I exceeded my authority

These days, teachers aren’t supposed to correct students. We’re supposed to encourage them. We’re supposed to value all ideas equally. We’re not supposed to silence those who express views we disagree with.

Most of the time, I agree.

But teachers encounter all kinds of alarming views these days. It’s not that some of them just support tax breaks anymore. Or that they want a stricter immigration policy. Those days are gone.

Some of my students now want to bring a gun into my classroom. They think 9/11 was a conspiracy. They want to join the anti-vaxxer movement. They’re ready to begin the incel rebellion, or the second civil war. They promote watered-down forms of white nationalism.

Not all of them. Not even most of them. Usually just one or two in a class. Or three. It feels like the numbers increase every semester.

These students can be loud, and pushy. Even worse, they can be so articulate that it’s hard to counter their logic. They commandeer class discussions, and cite their right to free speech.

Every day, teachers weigh the value of student agency against our other responsibilities. At some point, every teacher thinks about how we contribute to the bigger picture — the vision of an educated and open-minded society. That’s why we’re so troubled.

Teachers are supposed to be apolitical

It’s hard to reconcile my job with my job. Everyone gets riled up about teachers promoting a certain “political view” in their classrooms. Lawmakers are always looking for ways to punish universities for advancing causes they see as dangerous or subversive.

They dress their war on education in the form of “concern for students.” They talk about students’ rights, and liberal propaganda.

In truth, they really only care about the rights of a few. Their rights matter. But so do everyone’s. So do mine. Supposedly.

It’s an odd thing. Theoretically, teachers are positioned to have more influence on young minds than anyone else. Precisely for that reason, our speech is policed more. We constantly worry about what we say, what we tweet, and what stickers we put on our bumpers.

Some lawmakers would even require college professors to disclose their political affiliations.

Currently, I’m not allowed to tell anyone at work what I think about the minimum wage, equal pay, or voting rights.

Basically, I’m not allowed to tell my own students that they deserve more money for the jobs they do.

I’m not allowed to tell them how unfair it is that the university hires many of them to work in cafes and bookstores for criminally low pay.

Sometimes, I do it anyway. And I don’t get in trouble. Not yet. I choose my words carefully.

Technically, I’m not supposed to advocate. Officially, I’m not allowed to tell them that the party they support is the same one that sidesteps conversations about interest rates on student loans, student debt, and predatory for-profit education. I’m not allowed to educate students about the issues that affect them the most. Not officially.

The blind spots of critical thinking

Teachers have developed workarounds for these kinds of problems. Maybe we can’t advocate for certain political stances. But we can encourage critical thinking and information literacy.

Normally, this works. As it should. I’m less interested in changing a student’s mind than in getting them to engage with different viewpoints.

But it’s working less well every year. It gets easier and easier for some students to question my authority. To opt out of dialogue. To accuse me of proselytizing when I introduce them to the other side.

It’s delicate work. The hardest kind of work, and I still believe in it. But the more important my job becomes, the harder it gets. These days, getting some students to understand what “feminism” really means, even if they don’t agree with it, counts as a major victory.

Meanwhile, growing numbers of the public would say it’s not my job to explain feminism. That I should be fired for even trying.

Meet my anti-vaxxers

Some people would have me fired for even mentioning feminism in my class. But would all of those same people fire me for also talking about vaccines? Every semester now, one of my students wants to write about the anti-vaccine movement. They’ve watched a documentary or two. Now they believe they’ve stumbled onto a global conspiracy.

So I let them write about vaccines. They turn in a paper citing a dozen uncredible blog posts. During a conversation, I’ll suggest, “Why don’t you visit the CDC’s website?” Or, “Here’s this article from a peer-reviewed medical journal. It explains the flaws with anti-vaxxer arguments.”

But they don’t read the articles. They don’t visit the CDC’s website. In their drafts, they explain, “The CDC is actually part of the conspiracy. So I can’t trust them. They’re biased.”

“But most vaccines are cheap,” I tell them. “If drugs companies were conspiring with the CDC to trick everyone, wouldn’t they charge more?”

They reply, “The conspiracy is that they cause autism.”

And I say, “So the CDC wants everyone to develop autism? I’m not sure you can prove that.”

They nod. “I’ll talk about that more in my paper.”

In my head, I wonder why they came to college. Except I already know. They want a degree. But they don’t want their worldviews challenged. If they can’t find sources I see as credible, it’s not their problem. It’s mine. When they earn Ds and Fs, they’ll tell me I’m also part of the conspiracy. If I am, though, I want to know why I’m not getting my cut.

F.O.B. Papers

Sometimes, I have to give students passing grades for writing about views I find repugnant. Every so often, I have to give them an A.

It kills my soul a little.

Earlier this year, two students earned As for writing about the “harmful effects”of diversity. Both of them wrote well. They did everything my assignments asked. They even found ways to incorporate reliable sources and provided fair interpretation.

One student ultimately proposed an end to legal immigration in the U.S. The other argued for religious-based counseling in high schools to all students, but especially LGBT students.

The subtext was clear to me. The first student argued explicitly that diversity undermines civic unity. The other was subtle but clear that she wanted religious-based counseling in order to discourage students from adopting “lifestyle choices they might later regret.”

A big part of me wanted to write F.O.B. on these papers — Full of Bullshit. But I couldn’t. First, it would’ve started a big mess. Most of us teachers don’t want to wind up on the cover of The Chronicle. That’s bad.

Also, my job was to show students how to write essays. They’d done so. Where could I really get off telling them their views were wrong?

Nothing in my school’s policies, or even in my own ethics, would allow me to punish these students for expressing ideas I knew went against everything our culture is supposed to value.

It wasn’t even clear to me that these two students would protect my rights down the line. In fact, they probably wouldn’t.

Nobody can predict the future of education these days. We’re facing more threats than ever. Some of those threats come in the form of the very students we’re supposed to be helping. Teachers serve on the front lines of democracy. So I guess that’s why there’s such a battle over what we say and do in the classroom. At least I can still bash Hitler. For now.

Note: These are fictionalized versions of papers I’ve had to deal with. Close enough to make my point, different enough to avoid a lawsuit.