Alot of people apparently thought it was a good idea. Five teachers in the Rialto Unified School District developed the program, which was intended to improve the critical thinking skills of eighth-graders. And administrators signed off on it.
The assignment? To debate whether the Holocaust actually happened or whether it was "merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth."
The school district has finally apologized — appropriately — and is dispatching all students and their teachers to the Museum of Tolerance's new Anne Frank exhibition before they graduate next month.
But that hasn't ended the controversy. This month, Charles C.W. Cooke argued in the National Review that canceling the assignment was a "damn shame." It was a symptom, he said, of narrow-minded political correctness, and he said that an opportunity had been missed to allow teens to develop the argumentative skills of Oxford University-style debaters.
What's wrong with that thinking? Plenty.
For one thing, it plays directly into what the Nazis told their victims would happen. As a survivor of Dachau told the writer Terrence Des Pres: "The SS guards took pleasure in telling us that we had no chance in coming out alive, a point they emphasized with particular relish by insisting that after the war the rest of the world would not believe what happened; there would be rumors, speculations, but no clear evidence, and people would conclude that evil on such a scale was just not possible."
Those Nazis were proved wrong, in large measure because of a mountain of documentary evidence of the destruction of Europe's Jews amassed by the perpetrators themselves. Historians every day add to what we know about the Shoah by working to uncover previously unknown facts. They debate the mechanics of the Nazi genocidal machine, the motivation of the perpetrators and the reaction of the bystanders.
But historians would no more debate whether the Holocaust happened than they would whether Nazi Germany unleashed the blitzkrieg on Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. These events are facts.
Of course, eighth-graders should be taught about the Holocaust in the context of World War II. And in our Internet-dominated world, it is especially important to promote critical thinking. Soon enough (if not already) these teens will be exposed to the ugly fact that there are Holocaust deniers even among the heads of governments, as in Iran.
They may also come across bigots who argue in Internet forums that black people exploited on Southern plantations were "contented slaves." We must teach young people how to search for truth in history. But we can't make classrooms into platforms for legitimizing pseudo-history and teaching hate.
Recent studies have found that debating topics — such as whether Princess Diana was murdered by a conspiracy of the royal family or that climate change is a lie promoted by deceitful scientists — have an effect on adults as well as children. Daniel Jolley and Karen M. Douglas' new study in the British Journal of Psychology found that exposing people to such conspiracy theories decreased their likelihood to vote, donate money to political groups, or wear campaign stickers. The unsettling truth is that those exposed to conspiratorial propaganda — even if they ultimately reject it — tend to emerge from the exposure more disillusioned and less involved as citizens.
What was at stake in Rialto was not just the truth of history. We do our children a terrible disservice when we fail to teach them basic norms to distinguish good from evil. There are important lessons students can learn, say, from the diary of Anne Frank. But raising spurious questions about its veracity not only doesn't serve scholarship; it also deprives students of the kinds of life lessons that will help them navigate the world with courage to speak out for what's right when confronted by hate.
Soon, nearly 2,000 teens from the Rialto School District will visit the Museum of Tolerance to meet and hear from Holocaust survivors. They will be encouraged to ask them questions and engage in a dialogue. Not one of them is likely to leave that day thinking the Holocaust didn't happen. One day soon however, there won't be any survivors left to share their real-life experiences. That's when the ultimate challenge to truth will begin. Heaven help us all if we fail to provide young people with skills to recognize the difference between hate and history.
Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Harold Brackman, a historian, is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.