At the end of the week before the Boston Marathon bombing, a little story started making waves out of Albany, NY. Under normal circumstances, the story would have provided lots of raw material for the cable news noise factory.
The story about a high school writing assignment then dropped out of sight in the aftermath of the tragic events of the week of April 15. After watching the HBO documentary, Manhunt: The Search for bin Laden, it's worth revisiting the story because of the lessons that could be learned. It's worth revisiting because of the importance to America if we don't learn them.
On the surface, the story appeared to be another in the series of High School Administrations Gone Crazy, like the recent story of a girl getting arrested, charged with a felony and expelled from school for mixing some chemicals that popped the top off of an 8 oz. bottle and created a little smoke.
But what happened in Albany is more serious because you can draw a direct line from there to the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing via Baghdad and Pakistan. The story broke on April 12, about a high-school teacher who gave his/her 10th grade class an assignment in persuasive writing. What touched off the furor that led to the teacher's unfortunate suspension and an apology from the Albany school superintendent was the subject matter of the assignment: Nazi Germany.
The Controversial Assignment
Here is the assignment for three sophomore honors English classes: "For the following assignment you need to pretend that I am a member of the government of Nazi Germany, and you are being challenged to convince me that you are loyal to the Nazis by writing an essay convincing me that Jews are evil and the source of our problems." The as-yet-unnamed teacher also included this admonition: "You do not have a choice in your position -- you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich." Part of the assignment was to incorporate Aristotle's elements of argument -- reason, emotional appeal and passion.
The reaction was incendiary. One of the three classes declined to do the assignment, with one student quoted as saying she didn't want to say anything bad about Jewish people. Letters to the Albany Times-Union and comments on the paper's Web site said the teacher should be fired. Some, but not all, Jewish groups and assorted rabbis condemned the assignment.
Two points of context are also in order. One: The school district admitted the assignment was part of a more rigorous curriculum requiring sophisticated writing. Two: The assignment was in preparation for reading Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel's book, "Night," which told of his experiences as a child in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. Clearly, there was a context to the assignment.
Even more important, however, is the other skill being taught, and that's the link to Boston. The students in Albany, had they done the assignment, would have had to think like a Nazi would have thought. That skill, call it critical thinking or whatever term of art you like, is the most important of all. What was important about the Albany assignment was that it was hard and even offensive. While students and others had alternative proposals, none would have been so valuable as to make a person think as someone to be despised.
All through the Boston investigation, law enforcement officials were trying to make up profiles of the bombers. Every day, stories are in the newspapers trying to figure out what made the Tsarnaev brothers do what they did. To get to the why, you have to get into the head of the person.
Know Thine Enemy
This process is not new. Sun Tzu advised generals to "know thine enemy" 2,500 years ago. In the HBO documentary, the theme that pops up time and again is how ignorant we are as Americans and how important it is to under the other side's mindset.
Susan Hasler, who edited CIA daily report to the president said, speaking of terrorists: "Most people don't understand why they hate us." Stanley McChrystal, commander special operations units: "I'm not sure America has made the effort that it needs to to understand what it is we just went through. The really key part is not how to do these operations. The thing to understand is why are the people we are fighting are doing what they are doing? Why is the enemy the enemy? If you don't understand why they are doing it, it's very difficult to stop it. We don't speak the language enough. We don't understand the culture enough. We haven't taken the time to not be blind, deaf and dumb in the areas of the world that matter to us."
The Albany assignment was a first step to showing students how to think about the "why" by thinking as someone else would think. That doesn't mean they have to agree with the Nazi philosophy. This was not a case of Miss Jean Brodie trying to indoctrinate her students into the glories of Depression-era fascism.
This was nothing like the other mindless "similar" stories appended to most news reports, of teachers using devices like the number of lashes a slave would receive to teach math. Albany was an unfortunate case of extreme and unwarranted sensitivity to something abhorrent. No one asked the students to agree with the Nazis, only to think as they might have, just as CIA analysts must think as terrorists think, just as FBI agents are thinking as the Tsarnaev brothers did.
Everyone involved should see the loss of passing up an opportunity for a valuable teachable moment on the importance of being able to put yourself into the mind of even the most disreputable person with an abhorrent ideology. That's an important skill -- the kind of skill that later in life could help students with any kind of situation, from figuring out where a wandering child might go to tracking down the world's most notorious terrorist.