THE BLOG
08/05/2014 10:43 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Was Rialto Unified School District's Holocaust Assignment Really About Critical Thinking?

Although a great deal has been written about the "critical thinking" assignment given to eighth graders in the Rialto Unified School District on whether or not the Holocaust ever occurred, I feel compelled to provide my perspective.

Critical thinking is "the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment." The Rialto Unified School District's assignment itself stated the following: "When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence. For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. You will read and discuss multiple credible articles on this issue.... Read and analyze information from multiple, credible sources."

I have long said that "outcomes are often determined by the way in which the 'game' is designed." In fact, the first article I wrote for the Huffington Post, which also led to my becoming a Blogger for the Huffington Post began with that sentence.

Although people may re-write history for their own reasons, when "tragic events occur," there can be no "debate about their actual existence." There may be debate about the cause of an event, but never over whether or not the event actually occurred. Facts are facts, regardless of how inconvenient they may be. On the other hand, faith is defined as "the firm belief in something for which there is no proof," such as the existence of God."

While people tend to believe what they want to believe, that is not critical thinking; rather, it is about confirmation bias and other such things. For example, a lawyer colleague of mine was supposed to have a colonoscopy recently because he turned 50. He didn't want to have one and so he started doing research to support his desired result. He found "research" to support that he should not have a colonoscopy because it could damage the colon. He informed his wife of the research and his decision. She told him that if he didn't get a colonoscopy, she would divorce him. He decided to have the procedure.

I know this attorney and he most certainly knows how to think critically. The bottom line is that people have been rewriting history since the dawn of time and they will continue doing so if it suits their needs. Although we live in the information age, people search for the information they wish to receive and it typically has little to do with the quality or reliability of the research or information.

"Hate does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, hate is learned, often from one's family, but also from the groups that one joins.... Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League track and maintain records concerning hate groups and hate group activities in the United States. Using their definition as a foundation, we define hate groups as any organized group whose beliefs and actions are rooted in enmity towards an entire class of people based on ethnicity, perceived race, sexual orientation, religion, or other inherent characteristic. Note that there are two major components to this definition. First, a hate group must be organized.... The second major component of the above definition is the clear use of enmity towards a specific group as a primary organization focus."

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Nazi Party is located in Rialto, California. "[C]hildren become prejudiced adults by either adopting the attitudes of their parents and/or peer group or because they were raised in an environment that allowed for hatred to develop. Several studies have found a similar connection between exposure to prejudice as a child and later prejudiced attitudes as an adult." It is therefore highly probable that the children in the Rialto area have been exposed to Nazi attitudes.

Isn't it coincidental that the Rialto Unified School District would consider Holocaust denial to be a matter of critical thinking? It should also be noted that the assignment in question was presented in a way that suggested the Holocaust might not be true. Moreover, all of the articles provided to the children as part of the assignment were listed as being credible, which means that the information contained therein was "able to be believed." The articles were as follows: (1) an article by Jennifer Rosenberg titled "What You Need to Know About the Holocaust" that was published by About.com; (2) an article by Mark Weber titled "Is the Holocaust a Hoax?" that was published by BibleBelievers.org; and (3) an article about the Holocaust published by History.com.

Let's now address the credibility of the articles provided.

"Popular and collective websites (ask.com, about.com, WebMD.com, etc.): Websites such as these provide articles and information that has been collected from other sources that may not be reliable. While the sponsors of these sites usually employ writers who research the topics, citations for the sources of the data are not always provided."

Mark Weber wrote the article titled "Is the Holocaust a Hoax?" Interestingly enough, Mark Weber happens to be a member of a far-right white supremacist organization , a a known neo-Nazi, and "a full fledged antisemite." At the very beginning of his article, he references material from Fred A. Leuchter. "His study is referred to as the Leuchter Report after it was published and is often framed as a scientifically based work of Holocaust denial, though his research methods and findings were shown to be discredited in a 1999 Errol Morris documentary on the controversy, entitled Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." By the way, the claims raised by Mr. Weber in his article are all nonsensical, as can be seen in an article by Deborah Lipstadt titled "Denying the Holocaust" that was published by the BBC under the section titled "History of World Wars."

The following disclaimer is listed on History.com: "A&E Television Networks, LLC and its subsidiaries and affiliated entities (collectively, ('AETN') DOES NOT WARRANT OR MAKE ANY REPRESENTATIONS REGARDING THE USE OR THE RESULTS OF THE USE OF THE CONTENT ON THE SITES IN TERMS OF THEIR CORRECTNESS, ACCURACY, RELIABILITY OR OTHERWISE.... ALTHOUGH CONTENT IS GATHERED FROM SOURCES AETN CONSIDERS RELIABLE, AETN DOES NOT ASSUME ANY RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE ACCURACY, EFFICACY OR USE OF SUCH CONTENT.... YOUR RELIANCE UPON THE CONTENT IS SOLELY AT YOUR OWN RISK."

It seems that the most "credible" article provided by the Rialto Unified School District was from History.com because at least the information is "from sources AETN considers reliable." Nevertheless, the disclaimer on that site may cause one to question the credibility of the information. The information from About.com may or "may not be reliable. However, considering that Mark Weber is a known neo-Nazi and his article contains information that has been discredited, one would have very good reason to seriously doubt the credibility of his article.

Another extremely important aspect is the fact that none of the articles provided as part of the assignment addressed the issue of Holocaust denial. Anybody can deny or try and explain away anything. Therefore, if this was a critical thinking exercise, why didn't the school provide any credible material in response to Holocaust denial?

"In his inaugural lecture of 1895, Lord Acton said, ''The knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to making the future.' (Essays on Freedom and Power, New York, 1957, 25-26).' I discovered Lord Acton's quote in an article by James J. Sheehan titled How Do We Learn From History? In that article, Mr. Sheehan says the following: 'Historical analogies, comparisons, and metaphors are all around us; they are a source of collective wisdom on which we must rely.... In learning lessons from the past, differences are often as valuable as similarities....'

Let's toast to the importance of history and better yet, the enlightenment that comes through learning from the past!"

"Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism, positing that Jews have concocted a giant myth for their own ends. It persists despite the fact that the Holocaust is one of the best documented genocides in history, with a wide array of evidence documenting virtually every aspect of it.... Holocaust denial is a form of virulent anti-Semitism. But it is not only that. It is also an attack on reasoned inquiry and inconvenient history. If this history can be denied any history can be denied."