OSWEGO — Seventy-five years ago, senior Nazi officials convened at a villa in Wannsee, Germany, to formalize plans for the genocide of Jews in Europe.
In an English course taught through the Center for Instruction, Technology and Innovation (CiTi) New Vision program, a February assignment asked students to imagine being one of those Nazi officials arguing for or against the “Final Solution” that led to the murder of more than 6 million Jews.
“I understood where the teacher was coming from, but it was a distasteful way of going about it,” said Archer Shurtliff, a 17-year-old Paul V. Moore High School student taking the course. “You can play the devil’s advocate, but you can’t be the devil.”
Shurtliff and Jordan April — both taking the college-level “Principles of Literary Representation” course as part of the government and law track of the New Vision program — brought their concerns to teacher Michael DeNobile and CiTi administrators.
The students felt the administrators were largely dismissive of their concerns about the assignment, which came during a unit on war and after watching the 2001 film “Conspiracy,” about the 1942 Wannsee Conference.
“They understood where we were coming from, but they were very much for the idea that (the assignment) was for critical thinking,” said April, 17, a senior at Hannibal High School.
The students said they asked for an apology and for New Vision to exclude the assignment after they researched several examples of less sensitive debate material that could foster critical thinking.
In an email response to several questions about the assignment, DeNobile referred the questions to CiTi administration.
CiTi District Superintendent Christopher J. Todd said through a spokesperson that CiTi’s “main focus will forever be student success.”
“We embrace creativity and respect, and all of the students in the class were offered an alternative project of their choosing, three of which took advantage of that opportunity and completed the assignment successfully,” Todd said.
The Holocaust assignment called on students to write a 1 to 1 ½ page essay, including at least three “outside critical sources” that “must be medical, legal, governmental, military, or other in relation to the subject” to back students’ arguments supporting or opposing the Holocaust, according to an assignment memo.
“The point of this activity is not for you to be sympathetic to the Nazi point of view,” a caveat in the memo stated. “This is an exercise on expanding your point of view by going outside your comfort zone and training your brain to logistically find the evidence necessary to prove a point, even if it is existentially and philosophically against what you believe.”
But April argued the exercise forced students to cite evidence based on “unfounded hearsay or anti-Semitism.”
“There is no empirical evidence, no studies that say [Jews] are bad,” she said.
The students suggested comparative studies of Nazi and Soviet camps; crime and punishment in relation to the Nuremberg Trials; or analyses of fictional versus non-fictional Holocaust literature.
Alternative assignments were made available a few days after the students voiced concerns with CiTi and their own school district officials, the students said.
Shurtliff wrote about reparations to the survivors of Japanese internment, and April about the response to the AIDS crisis.
“The class has been perfectly fine. The program is great. The teacher is good and the classmates are good,” said Shurtliff, who along with April continues to take the class. “It’s just this assignment that’s bad.”
April agreed, saying she was “100 percent behind this class, it’s really broadened my horizons in literature and literature theory. I love this program. Our teacher is not a bad person or teacher, it was just an assignment done in poor taste.”
Kevin Hill, president of Oswego’s Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, said one of the most important issues surrounding the Holocaust was “how members of a civilized society were persuaded to support and even carry out heinous acts that fail to meet every reasonable test of morality and humanity.”
Hill said it was vital to examine the “alternate point of view” to learn the arguments used to advance “reprehensible and deplorable acts” as a way to prevent history from repeating itself.
Despite what both April and Shurtliff referred to as an online backlash Thursday, they believed they made the right choice to speak out about the assignment.
“There are always going to be problems with debating such a major issue,” April said, though she added the Holocaust was not an issue with multiple sides. “The main reason I’m fighting for this to be removed is so it doesn’t hurt the program any more than it has.”