June 24, 2024
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Open-Minded or Just Plain Stupid?

We live in a very tolerant society. Individuals can have very strong opinions about a variety of subjects and for the most part, although we may vehemently disagree with some sentiments, in America at least, people can express these opinions. Over time certain opinions and practices regarding slavery and segregation have been outlawed. At the same time, we have seen progress regarding prejudice against individuals whose lifestyles are different. Certain words about various minorities are no longer acceptable in polite conversation, and discrimination against people with disabilities is now against the law. Among the topics that are generally still verboten in mainstream society is praise for Adolph Hitler (except for some fringe groups).

Teachers have an obligation and an opportunity to shape children’s thinking about many subjects. States provide curricular guidelines and schools provide syllabi. Teachers used to submit lesson plans, and supervisers actually supervised in the classrooms. With all the formal structure of the educational enterprise, teachers still have much latitude to impart not only information but attitudes. Elementary-school students are sponges absorbing so much subliminally from their teachers. It is an awesome responsibility.

Any college professor will tell you that the major issue they face with incoming students is their inability to write coherently. Hence the challenge of elementary, middle and high school teachers to be creative in their writing assignments to get students to express themselves. Often teachers will assign open-ended topics. such as biographies of famous people, book reports, etc. However, a good teacher will request the subject chosen in advance and sometimes guide students to a more suitable or appropriate topic.

As reported in several local news outlets, recently, fifth graders at the Maugham Elementary School in Tenafly were given an assignment to write a one-page biography in that person’s voice. One student chose to write about Adolph Hitler, who bragged about his accomplishments. “I was very popular.” “I was pretty great, wasn’t I?” “My greatest accomplishment was uniting a great mass of German and Austrian people behind me.” “I was very popular and many people followed me until I died. My belif [sic] in antisemitism drove me to kill more than 6 million Jews.”

The fifth-grade assignment also included the student dressing as Hitler. The one-page bio was displayed for weeks in the elementary school’s hallway with similar assignments from other students.

Where was the teacher who approved this topic? Where was the teacher who actually displayed this essay? Where was the principal, who should have seen this in the hallway? Where were the parents of this student? In what universe was this acceptable? Will students also write laudatory essays about Timothy McVeigh, Charles Manson, Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein?

Tenafly residents expressed shock about this student-written biography of Hitler, as did the ADL. The school board says it’s “unfair to judge” the student or teacher over the Hitler report. In a letter posted on the district website, Tenafly superintendent of schools Shauna DeMarco wrote:

“We fully appreciate the concerns that have arisen regarding a fifth-grade class assignment on social norms and historical figures who personify good and evil. Unfortunately, this assignment has been taken out of context, resulting in understandable anger and concern. The assignment (which was given by a teacher who happens to be Jewish) asked students to speak from the perspective of one of these individuals and how they might have perceived and rationalized their actions.

“When people saw the students’ projects, which were displayed in the school, they did not understand the assignment, resulting in justifiable concerns. Given that the lesson was specifically issued within the context of social justice, it is unfair to judge any student or teacher in this matter.

“Tenafly Public Schools condemn antisemitism, racism, and bias of any kind. We hope that after reviewing these facts you will join with us to help our community begin the healing process.”

Jordan Shenker, CEO of Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, said, “Regardless of the educational intent here, the teacher failed to recognize the profound impact this can have on students, family members and others in our community who could perceive this project as condoning or even glorifying the atrocities of one of the most evil individuals in world history.”

It is sad and depressing that the teacher who assigned this exercise is Jewish. We do not know if the student is Jewish. It is hardly believable that a fifth grader wrote this as a parody. Is this the way that one or both of his parents feel? Seventy-six years have passed since the end of concentration camps and people are shocked that kids think Hitler was an honorable person?

Bad judgment is written all over this assignment.

Who would think this could happen in Tenafly? Bergen County is filled with children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. As there are fewer survivors still alive, we must remember and teach our children about the atrocities of Nazism and not Hitler’s “accomplishments.”

Aside from formal training, teachers need basic common sense, which sadly cannot be taught. Hopefully this can be a teachable moment, not just about how to monitor assignments, but about fully implementing the State’s mandate about Holocaust education.

Postscript: The superintendent of the Tenafly school district has put the principal of the Maugham Elementary School and the teacher who approved the fifth-grade assignment on Hitler’s achievements on paid leave.


Dr. Wallace Greene has taught, lectured and written about the Holocaust. He is a member of the JCRC Holocaust Commemoration Committee.

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