Oswego County, NY – A pair of high school seniors taking a college level class through a state run program in Oswego learned a lesson they will never forget when their teacher asked them to argue the pros and cons of Hitler’s Final Solution calling for the annihilation of the Jewish people.
Archer Shurtliff and Jordan April, both 17 and students at Oswego County High School, found themselves uncomfortable with a February assignment that instructed students to think like high level Nazi officials, as reported by Syracuse.com (http://bit.ly/2o6j43x). While neither student is Jewish, both seemed surprised that Michael DeNobile, the instructor of their “Principles of Literary Representation” class at the Oswego County CiTi/Board of Cooperative Educational Services New Vision program, would ask them to write a paper that supported mass murder.
Students were randomly divided into two groups: one that would argue for, and the other to argue against, genocide. While Shurtliff and April found themselves placed on different sides of the issue, both were united by their concern about the assignment, which was designed to “expand your point of view by going outside your comfort zone.”
Most other classmates reportedly had no difficulty contemplating the pros and cons of the Final Solution, with one student assigned to argue against the extermination of Jews expressing a preference for supporting genocide, punctuating his remarks with a Nazi salute.
Ironically the BOCES campus is located less than 14 miles from the former Oswego refugee camp, the only facility in the United States that took in Holocaust survivors after World War II. The nearby Syracuse JCC has also been the subject of three bomb threats in recent months.
After discussing their concerns with DeNobile, BOCES administrators and their high school teachers, Shurtliff and April contacted the Anti-Defamation League and the news media and within days, DeNobile offered an alternative assignment. That response fell short, according to the pair who felt that an apology was in order and that the assignment should be retracted and never given again.
But a statement given by Superintendent Christopher Todd said that the program embraces “creativity and respect” and that while an alternative assignment had been given, all but three of the students completed the original assignment.
Hearing about the assignment for the first time at a meeting held last week in Syracuse, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia initially defended it, saying it could motivate students to engage in critical thinking.
“That idea of being able to identify the perspective an article has, or a writer has, is a very important skill,” said Elia.
But in a statement released on Monday, Elia said that she was reversing her position after reading the assignment and that she had been in contact with BOCES officials who had also reconsidered their stance.
“We agree that the assignment should not have been given,” said Elia.
A statement on the BOCES website offered its own mea culpa, saying that it appreciated the seriousness of the matter and noting that the assignment was in poor taste.
“The core values of the Center for Instruction, Technology & Innovation uphold honesty, respect and integrity. The teacher apologized for the assignment, and it will not be used in the future.”
Naomi Himes public relations coordinator at CiTi said that she could not comment when asked if DeNobile had been reprimanded in any way for the assignment. DeNobile did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.
A statement released by the ADL on Monday commended both CiTi and Elia for realizing that the assignment was offensive and inappropriate.
“The notion that students were asked to engage in such thinking trivializes the horrific experiences of the victims and we are pleased that it will no longer be part of the curriculum,” said Evan Bernstein, New York Regional Director of the ADL.
But State Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn called for Elia’s resignation, noting that last week she defended the assignment, “Had the assignment been to argue in favor of slavery or other human atrocities, would anyone dare to defend it? I honestly couldn’t believe this story when I heard it. I thought it was a sick joke.” explained Hikind.