Teaching Nazis

“As you watch the movie The Twisted Cross, please do not draw swastikas on your desks.”

Every year I have uttered those words in some way. Sometimes the title changes to the NAZI propaganda film The Triumph of the Will. Other times I teach without films, but still, find it necessary to command students to refrain from drawing that symbol. Despite my pleas and regardless of my teaching methods, since 1995 a swastika has been drawn somewhere in my classroom.

Last year a student managed to plant a very poor attempt of a swastika on my wall next to my poster of the presidents of the United States:

I don’t think President Benjamin Harrison was a NAZI!

Why do students draw swastikas? I think they fall into two camps — the curious and the angry.

The Curious

The curious student may simply be a provocative person. He or she might be an adolescent who likes to see how things feel or to push social boundaries. I have had many curious students.

One explanation for the curiosity is the curriculum. Students learn about the holocaust, Hitler, and the world wars many times in their careers, but with very little depth. I remember taking an elective course on World War Two during my junior year of high school. I recall learning names like Himmler and Goering for the first time. I was, of course, intrigued by these new-to-me historical individuals. (The 20-week course has actually proved invaluable to my teaching.) Unfortunately, most courses in the humanities are survey courses. Survey courses are not intended for deep learning. So for the most part, adolescents are left with significant holes in their education. They remain curious.

I am not as troubled by the curious. I would like to teach an elective course on the world wars one day, and I am sure that course would also foster clandestine swastikas. I think the power of that symbol will always be enticing.

The Angry

I do not want to profile my students. I am not calling them future fascists. However, I am also a student of human nature. I know that public schools are often microcosms — hatred, intolerance, and ignorance exist in American society and therefore ugliness exists in our schools.

Teaching the Social Studies during the 2016–17 school year has illuminated the ugliness of our society. Our society affects our youth. Their experiences today shape their world view tomorrow.

This year has brought too many subtle examples of intolerance to the surface. I do not want to acknowledge student’s negative comments as normal or acceptable, nor do I want to sensationalize typical developmental issues that arise with teaching adolescents. However, I have witnessed an increase in student appreciation for extreme opinions recently.

For instance, I have been teaching about the world wars this month and I am a bit shocked by a few student’s responses to my lessons. During a recent lesson, I mentioned that the Nazi’s burned the German Reichstag and then blamed the communists. A student yelled out: “There is no proof that the Nazis burned the Reichstag.” I said, yes, in fact there is. (“Historians find ‘proof’ that Nazis burnt Reichstag.”) He could not let it go, he kept saying: “You have no proof.” I tried to explain to him that this was the provocative event that propelled the Nazis, but he seemed to be very bent on proving me wrong. This was the same individual that last week proclaimed that he would have made a good NAZI. (Please see my earlier post: Snowdays are Savage!)

Do I share my evidence? Do I disprove his alternative facts? Do I get in the cage with the angry bear? This student is intelligent and armed with some knowledge — just enough to make him very rigid.

I wonder at how this student has come to his conclusions. Does he read from a variety of sources? Does he watch documentaries? He does not hand in most of his assignments so I can assume he has some time on his hands. What are his conversations like with his family members? Why is he angry? What responsibility do I have in his education?

Ironically I had already planned a reflective assignment about this lesson. Students were asked to reflect on the following questions: Why did Hitler come to power? If you were a German during the interwar period would you have supported him and the NAZI party?

It will be interesting to read my students' responses. Most of them will be eligible to vote in less than three years.

This piece was combined with another post, Snowdays are Savage, and published in the Teaching Tolerance Blog http://www.tolerance.org/blog/teacher-overhears-yeah-i-would-have-made-good-nazi
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