Re: Don’t Teach Holocaust Denial

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Jonah takes issue with my suggestion that asking children to write essays suggesting that the Holocaust didn’t happen would be a good idea:

First, upon hearing the news that a public school has decided not to treat Holocaust denial as a legitimate position for 8th graders, Charlie proceeds to celebrate the merits of free inquiry and open debate at Oxford University. I find the comparison thoroughly unhelpful. Junior high school education and debates at Oxford are not interchangeable. 

Second, and far more important,  the issue of whether the Holocaust happened, is not remotely similar to a debate — at any age or at any institution — to a debate about whether America should be a Communist country. One speaks to facts — facts with enormous moral and historic significance — the other speaks to values. By all means debate values, but schools should teach facts, particularly when denying the facts (in this case the Holocaust) is central to a deeply bigoted and dangerous propaganda effort. Assigning essays on “Does the Declaration of Independence Exist?” or “Did the Vietnam War Happen?” would be equally stupid as assigning essays on “Did the Holocaust Happen?”, but they would be less offensive because at least those questions aren’t in service to a pernicious Big Lie.

Jonah is right. “Should America be a communist country?” and “Did the Holocaust happen?” are not the same question, and it was a little sloppy of me to have compared them. One is a matter of judgment; the other is a historical fact. Point taken.

So let’s compare like with like. Yes, I am absolutely happy with asking the question, “Does the Declaration of Independence Exist?” I’m even happy with phrasing it in a pejorative way: “Is the Declaration of Independence a hoax that has been invented by white people?” Why? Because the answer is the same in both cases: “No, it’s a real thing, and here’s why.”

What I’m bothered by here is shutting off the process by which one might arrive at the the correct answer. Certainly, I think the Holocaust happened. Certainly, I think that the Declaration of Independence is real. But that’s why I’m not remotely worried by the prospect of children being asked to prove it. The incredulity that anybody reasonable would feel if asked to answer those questions is actually a healthy thing. It’s good for us to laugh at those who make ridiculous claims. It’s good, too, for us to go through the process of pointing out the numbers and finding the pictures and the quotations and the source documentation to illustrate it, rather than just relying upon the view of the majority.

Jonah asks:

Does Charles really mean to say the reality of the Holocaust is now an issue of “great controversy”? Seriously? I thought great controversies were reserved for issues where there are legitimate views and equivocal facts in play on both sides. Does Charles really think that is the case with the Holocaust? If so, please make your case. 

No, of course not. But denialism is something that most people will encounter in their lives, and I think we might equip people better to deal with it. Currently, we arm them with a shortcut: outrage. I suppose what bothers me here is that I don’t think that someone’s saying, “hey, this guy thinks the Holocaust didn’t happen!” and then watching the condemnation pour in is anything like as virtuous as saying, “look what I found when I looked into it a little — this idea is nuts.” So many of the people who have tweeted or e-mailed me since I put up my post are resting their arguments on the basis that the Holocaust is a “fact.” It is, indeed, a fact. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t expect people to get there on their own. In mathematics, our schools do not accept answers that consist merely of the correct number. You have to show your working. Should history be any different? I’m not sure.

As for the question of age. Well, I’m neither a parent nor a schoolteacher, so I will defer in some measure to those who are. But it strikes me that there is a very real risk of our creating people who are so sure of what is true and what is not by the time that they reach college that they are lost to genuine inquiry. ”Give me the child, and I will mold the man,” St. Francis Xavier promised. I’m merely wondering aloud if a little more contrarianism and a few more outrageous questions might not just make him a better thinker.

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