Thursday, 13 June 2013 00:00
(Editor’s note: This letter is in response to From The Desk Of Senator Jack Martins’ column titled “Stupid is as Stupid Does” which appeared in the April 26 printed editions within Martins’ district, and online at http://www.antonnews.com/mineolaamerican/opinion/28866-from-the-desk-of-ny-state-senator-jack-martins.html/. )
Recently, New York State Senator Jack Martins (R -7th SD) wrote a newspaper editorial in which he lambasted an Albany high school English teacher for giving students a creative and unconventional essay assignment. Pretend, the teacher asked students, that you were a Nazi in Germany and give reasons why you think the Jews are the bane of Germany’s existence. It’s a challenging assignment, indeed, because it’s difficult to comprehend how a political regime should come to the conclusion that an entire group of people – especially a group of accomplished and educated people who had made great contributions to that society – should be exterminated. Even the brilliantly insightful Sir Winston Churchill struggled with this and when he met a Nazi Party official in a Munich hotel lobby shortly before Hitler came to power and endeavored to arrange a meeting with Der Fuhrer, he asked said official how the Nazis arrived at their conclusions concerning the Jews. The result was that the Hitler/Churchill meeting never occurred.
I’m not shocked, startled, or outraged by this teacher’s attempt to get students to look deeply into the minds of the people who caused one of history’s greatest disasters. I am, however, at Mr. Martins’ reaction and interpret it as yet another official stamp-of-approval affixed to the dumbing-down of education. Of this teacher, Mr. Martins says, “He shouldn’t be teaching our children. And in either case, he shouldn’t be collecting a tax-funded salary.”
Well, who should, Mr. Martins – the tenured “teacher” who reads the newspaper and sips Starbucks whilst his students complete their training as game show contestants checking-off answers on a multiple-guess SAT prep exam? The “educators” who’ve made multicultural awareness seminars, gay sensitivity training, and self-esteem workshops more important than mathematics, chemistry, and physics? Perhaps, Mr. Martins, you ought be everlastingly grateful that this teacher is only in class with his students for 180 days. In China, it’d be about 300 days. (We can thank politicians for the short school year).
Historical events are virtually impossible to understand – and therefore are quickly forgotten- without some comprehension of the mindset of the people who precipitated those events. This teacher’s, albeit over-the-top, assignment was an endeavor to get students to appreciate that fact and it’s pathetic that so many supposedly educated people are too stupid or intellectually dishonest to see what point this teacher was making. Are we to believe, for example, that the Pilgrims came to New England to see the autumn leaves or was there a religious and sociological motivation and wouldn’t it enhance our understanding if we could imagine what it’d be like to be one of those hearty souls on the Mayflower? Are we to believe that the colonists in 1775 took up arms against George III’s soldiers because they didn’t like red uniforms or were there other reasons and wouldn’t it enhance our understanding if we could endeavor, however inexactly, to place our feet into their buckled shoes? Are we to believe, as I was taught as a youth, that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor because that’s what treacherous “dirty Japs” do, or was there – however ill-conceived and catastrophic – a geopolitical and strategic motivation and wouldn’t it enhance our understanding of America’s entry into the Second World War if we could put one’s self in the head of some admiral in the Imperial Navy? And if we could try to imagine what it would be like to be a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp might that not enhance our understanding of the Holocaust as well? (Something brilliantly depicted in the movie The Devil’s Arithmetic wherein a Jewish teenager utterly disinterested in the history of her people goes to sleep and finds herself transported back in time to a concentration camp where she meets her, now elderly, aunt who was a Holocaust survivor). This idea of enhancing our understanding of historical events is something Senator Martins called “stupid”.
Let’s not underestimate the profound state of historical ignorance in America today. I work in history museums and frequently encounter people in their 30s and 40s who know shockingly little about history. And I know a number of history professors who could make you cringe when they describe how little their students know. I’ve met adults who believed Quaker settlers killed-off the Indians and stole their land and people who thought World War II was sometime in the 1920s or 30s. I’ve met people who didn’t know when World War I was fought and who was in it and people who believed Christopher Columbus’ contemporaries thought the world was flat. I fell out of my chair when I heard a popular Irish-American TV journalist state that Oliver Cromwell “conquered Ireland for the English monarchy”.
And the relative of somebody I know who teaches in an inner-city public school, reported to me that the students there know virtually nothing about Martin Luther King, couldn’t care less to know anything about him, and certainly have no idea for whom he was named.
We are being submerged in a vast collective dumbing-down whereupon facts have become “talking points” raw data to be memorized for Friday’s exam and forgotten by the time school lets out in June. We should be grateful that a teacher – and not even a social studies teacher – had made the effort to give students this unconventional Devil’s Advocate/Modest Proposal approach to the tragic events of World War II. The students are not likely to forget this assignment, which means that by 2045 there might be somebody who remembers that the Holocaust actually happened.
Mr. Martins’ op-ed was not simply pandering to politically correct professional complainers and canned outrage. It’s symptomatic of a society that’s given up endeavoring to educate its children.
Look at your own State of New York, Mr. Martins: it’s filled with functionally illiterate adults and people with bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science who wait tables at Applebee’s. Still believe lambasting an English teacher whose trying to get students to think is New York’s highest educational priority?
Paul Manton, Levittown