Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Imagine You Are a Nazi


Werner Feig was a gifted teacher at my high school from whom I learned European History and Constitutional Law. Along with his colleague—the astounding and inspirational Eric Rothschild—Mr. Feig made sure that me and my fellow students loved history, not simply that we knew it. He also made us uncomfortable.

Feig lived history—fleeing Germany as a boy and growing up in the Hongkew Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, China. He later made his way to the U.S. where he earned Masters degrees in both education and political science, before settling down to teach high school social studies. He was a passionate teacher, and is rightly memorialized by his former student Aaron Sorkin, who has one "West Wing" character cite Feig as his inspiration for going into public service.

But Feig had an unusual way about teaching us to think and question authority. In my Constitutional Law class, he used to call me “Little Hitler.” Sometimes, along with other Jewish students, I was called versions of Berko-kyke. A Chinese colleague of mine was referred to as "no tick-ee no washee.” When another Asian student went to the chalkboard, we could hear our esteemed teacher mutter: "I need some Coolie labor now." A Jewish friend was “Shlomo.” And my sister, two years behind me, was “Little Hitler’s sister.” There were worse names as well.

Hearing these epithets at the time was bracing. But it was also provocative—in the best sense. Mr. Feig got us thinking. He was teaching us Constitutional Law and Free Speech, and forcing us above all to think about the power of words as well as the right, his right, to use them. It was a powerful lesson, one that has never left me. I can safely say that Mr. Feig’s classroom was one of the most intellectually infectious I have ever experienced. He is, for me, one of that select group of teachers on whom I model my own teaching. Teaching, he showed me, should be free to provoke in the name of thinking. Indeed, it must.

thinki desk

I’ve been thinking about Werner Feig a lot this past week, ever since I came across a NY Times article about a high school teacher in Albany who has been suspended for asking his students to write an essay arguing that Jews are evil. The assignment was thought to be so awful a breach of teaching judgment that the school district refuses to release the name of the teacher. Here is the Times' account:

The students were instructed to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were “the source of our problems” using historical propaganda and, of course, a traditional high school essay structure.

“Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion,” the assignment read. “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

The reaction to the assignment has been—with very few exceptions—highly negative. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, the superintendent of schools in Albany, fully repudiated the teacher: “Obviously, we have a severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity. That’s not the assignment that any school district, and certainly not mine, is going to tolerate.” Jewish organizations swung into action, joining the superintendent at a press conference. The Anti-Defamation League will run sensitivity training workshops.

New York City Councilman David Greenfield went further and insisted the teacher be fired. In a statement, Greenfield writes: "The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs. Quite obviously, this teacher lacks the judgment and common sense necessary to have a position of such great responsibility and is clearly not fit to return to the classroom."

The press too has jumped on this story, making it a national news item, covered on all the networks and in papers around the country. Writing on Jezebel, David Barry made a feint in the direction of understanding the value of such an assignment, but then about-faced and concluded:

However, nothing ever good comes from pretending that you’re a Nazi, and there is literally an infinite number of FAR BETTER persuasive writing prompts, such as, “Convince me that you, a human high school student, are actually a glass of apple cider,” or “Convince me that you’re an acorn that is running for the mayor of Oakton on an anti-squirrel platform. Make me believe that you despise squirrels.” The Nazi prompt isn’t just bigoted writing assignment — it’s also a cheap trick, a way to stir up the volatile psyches of high school students in an effort to engage them in a task that they hate, namely, writing essays.

Reading about this assignment and the heated reaction it elicited, my first reaction was to think back to Mr. Feig. Would his style of teaching simply be impossible today? Do we really live in a world in which a teacher is unable to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of evil people? Are we so far down the road of thou-shalt-not-offend that we simply cannot tolerate the exercise and effort to think from the perspective of those with whom we disagree or even those whose opinions we view as intolerable?

The outrage in Albany also brought to my mind the recent debate over gun control. For many on the left, the Newtown tragedy was an unanswerable wakeup call for gun control. I get that. As I wrote shortly after Newtown, the fact that one person without any assistance could do so much damage with automatic weapons is good reason to regulate automatic weapons. We will never stop killing. And we will never stop killing with guns. But when one crazy person can kill dozens or potentially hundreds with high-powered guns, we should work to keep such guns out of the hands of unstable people.


At the same time, I understand and respect the strong attachment that many people have to guns. Some love to hunt. Others see guns as a symbol of their freedom. In a world where people feel powerless and vulnerable, owning a weapon offers a feeling of power (real or fictional). I respect that need. It is part of the beauty of America that we imbue in people the desire to feel powerful. That is the genius of democracy: that every individual matters. At a time when most people feel alienated from our broken democracy, guns can become a crutch. I may wish people found other symbols of their power, but I do get why owning a gun is meaningful. There are times when I want one myself.

What the gun control fiasco in Congress illustrates is how neither side made any effort to really understand the other. Actually, it is worse than that. Partisans of gun control are vitriolic in their baiting of those who will argue against gun control. Gun advocates are at times even worse, as the crosshairs scandal around the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made clear. The ill will and disgust that proponents of both positions have for the other was palpable in every editorial and every argument. In short, for advocates and opponents of gun control, the other side was so stupid and wrong and evil as to be simply incomprehensible.

Which brings me back to the unnamed teacher in Albany who has been disciplined and shamed and abandoned for asking high school students to put themselves in the place of an official during the Nazi government. Such an official might well be asked to write such a memo. The students in the school had been studying Nazi propaganda in school. They were about to read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. Doesn’t it make sense in this context to push students to understand how it might be that Nazi’s did what they did?

For Hannah Arendt, political thinking demands the practice of enlarged thinking, of thinking from the position of those who are absent. She writes: “Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” She does not mean that in political thinking we think what others think, but that the first requirement of political life—a life alongside others with whom one often disagrees—is to seek to think from their point of view. To have a chance of convincing someone they are wrong, you must first understand that person’s argument in its strongest and most compelling sense. Only then, also, can you respond to those with whom you disagree as human beings.

When I teach The Origins of Totalitarianism, I emphasize Arendt’s insistence that we must not simply condemn antisemitism (we must do that too) but ask as well what are the logical and rational reasons why modern antisemitism could lead to the holocaust? It is not an accident, nor is it irrational, she argues, but has something to do with the way that Jewish separateness and distinction exists in a problematic way in the modern world that demands equal treatment.  Such questions are uncomfortable and she does not ask them to excuse antisemitism, but to understand its modern power.  Students regularly come to see the benefit of such queries, made even more difficult when I extend the discussion to ask after the rationales for the continued relevance of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Luckily for me, my students understand the value of this exercise and don’t condemn me as a racist or antisemite.

It is easy to say that Nazis are not human beings and that the effort to understand them is, itself, immoral. That is the argument the Albany superintendent made. It is the same argument that leads many to say that racists are inhuman and that all bigots are sub-human. But to comprehend is not the same as to agree. Rather, as Arendt writes in the preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, comprehension is the prerequisite for resistance.


Of the many responses I found to the suspension of the Albany school teacher, only one defended him. Writing on the CNN Belief Blog, Stephen Prothero of Boston University told of his experience teaching Nazi theology who taught that Jews were evil and were responsible for killing Christ, amongst other antisemitic slanders. He writes:

First, I wanted my students to realize that smart Christians with doctoral degrees supported the Holocaust. Second, I wanted them to grapple with the implications of this fact on their own religious commitments. Do Christians today have any responsibility to know this history and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again? If so, how can they exercise that responsibility without coming to understand the contours of Nazi thought?

Prothero reminds me of the importance of teachers like Werner Feig. He offers a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we need to challenge our young people with precisely the kinds of assignments that have been rejected in Albany. The scandal in Albany may prove that such teaching is simply no longer be possible today. If that is true, it is for the worse. To help see why, I commend to you Stephen Prothero’s defense of teaching Nazi theology. It is your weekend read.



The Progeny of Teachers

San Jose State University is experimenting with a program where students pay a reduced fee for online courses run by the private firm Udacity. Teachers and their unions are in retreat across the nation. And groups like Uncollege insist that schools and universities are unnecessary. At a time when teachers are everywhere on the defensive, it is great to read this opening salvo from Leon Wieseltier:

When I look back at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. I am the progeny of teachers; I swoon over teachers. Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant.

I share Wieseltier’s reverence for educators. Eric Rothschild and Werner Feig lit fires in my brain while I was in high school. Austin Sarat taught me to teach myself in college. Laurent Mayali introduced me to the wonders of history. Marianne Constable pushed me to be a rigorous reader. Drucilla Cornell fired my idealism for justice. And Philippe Nonet showed me how much I still had to know and inspired me to read and think ruthlessly in graduate school. Like Wieseltier, I can trace my life’s path through the lens of my teachers. 

The occasion for such a welcome love letter to teachers is Wieseltier’s rapacious rejection of homeschooling and unschooling, two movements that he argues denigrate teachers. As sympathetic as I am to his paean to pedagogues, Wieseltier’s rejection of all alternatives to conventional education today is overly defensive.

For all their many ills, homeschooling and unschooling are two movements that seek to personalize and intensify the often conventional and factory-like educational experience of our nation’s high schools and colleges. According to Wieseltier, these alternatives are possessed of the “demented idea that children can be competently taught by people whose only qualifications for teaching them are love and a desire to keep them from the world.” These movements believe that young people can “reject college and become “self-directed learners.”” For Wieseltier, the claim that people can teach themselves is both an “insult to the great profession of pedagogy” and a romantic over-estimation of “untutored ‘self’.” 

The romance of the untutored self is strong, but hardly dangerous. While today educators like Will Richardson and entrepreneurs like Dale Stephens celebrate the abundance of the internet and argue that anyone can teach themselves with simply an internet connection, that dream has a history. Consider this endorsement of autodidactic learning from Ray Bradbury from long before the internet:

Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

In this interview in the Paris Review, Bradbury not only celebrates the freedom of the untutored self, but also dismisses college along much the same lines as Dale Stephens of Uncollege does. Here is Bradbury again:

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself. 

What the library and the internet offer is unfiltered information. For the autodidact, that is all that is needed. Education is a self-driven exploration of the database of the world.

Of course such arguments are elitist. Not everyone is a Ray Bradbury or a Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, who taught himself Latin in a few days. Hannah Arendt refused to go to her high school Greek class because it was offered at 8 am—too early an hour for her mind to wake up, she claimed. She learned Greek on her own. For such people self-learning is an option. But even Arendt needed teachers, which is why she went to Freiburg to study with Martin Heidegger. She had heard, she later wrote, that thinking was happening there. And she wanted to learn to think.

What is it that teachers teach when they are teaching? To answer “thinking” or “critical reasoning” or “self-reflection” is simply to open more questions. And yet these are the crucial questions we need to ask. At a period in time when education is increasingly confused with information delivery, we need to articulate and promote the dignity of teaching.

What is most provocative in Wieseltier’s essay is his civic argument for a liberal arts education.  Education, he writes, is the salvation of both the person and the citizen. Indeed it is the bulwark of a democratic politics:

Surely the primary objectives of education are the formation of the self and the formation of the citizen. A political order based on the expression of opinion imposes an intellectual obligation upon the individual, who cannot acquit himself of his democratic duty without an ability to reason, a familiarity with argument, a historical memory. An ignorant citizen is a traitor to an open society. The demagoguery of the media, which is covertly structural when it is not overtly ideological, demands a countervailing force of knowledgeable reflection.

That education is the answer to our political ills is an argument heard widely. During the recent presidential election, the candidates frequently appealed to education as the panacea for everything from our flagging economy to our sclerotic political system. Wieseltier trades in a similar argument: A good liberal arts education will yield critical thinkers who will thus be able to parse the obfuscation inherent in the media and vote for responsible and excellent candidates.

I am skeptical of arguments that imagine education as a panacea for politics. Behind such arguments is usually the unspoken assumption: “If X were educated and knew what they were talking about, they would see the truth and agree with me.” There is a confidence here in a kind of rational speech situation (of the kind imagined by Jürgen Habermas) that holds that when the conditions are propitious, everyone will come to agree on a rational solution. But that is not the way human nature or politics works. Politics involves plurality and the amazing thing about human beings is that educated or not, we embrace an extraordinary variety of strongly held, intelligent, and conscientious opinions. I am a firm believer in education. But I hold out little hope that education will make people see eye to eye, end our political paralysis, or usher in a more rational polity.

What then is the value of education? And why is that we so deeply need great teachers? Hannah Arendt saw education as “the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." The educator must love the world and believe in it if he or she is to introduce young people to that world as something noble and worthy of respect. In this sense education is conservative, insofar as it conserves the world as it has been given. But education is also revolutionary, insofar as the teacher must realize that it is part of that world as it is that young people will change the world. Teachers simply teach what is, Arendt argued; they leave to the students the chance to transform it.

To teach the world as it is, one must love the world—what Arendt comes to call amor mundi. A teacher must not despise the world or see it as oppressive, evil, and deceitful. Yes, the teacher can recognize the limitations of the world and see its faults. But he or she must nevertheless love the world with its faults and thus lead the student into the world as something inspired and beautiful. To teach Plato, you must love Plato. To teach geology, you must love rocks. While critical thinking is an important skill, what teachers teach is rather enthusiasm and love of learning. The great teachers are the lovers of learning. What they teach, above all, is the experience of discovery. And they do so by learning themselves.

Education is to be distinguished from knowledge transmission. It must also be distinguished from credentialing. And finally, education is not the same as indoctrinating students with values or beliefs. Education is about opening students to the fact of what is. Teaching them about the world as it is.  It is then up to the student, the young, to judge whether the world that they have inherited is loveable and worthy of retention, or whether it must be changed. The teacher is not responsible for changing the world; rather the teacher nurtures new citizens who are capable of judging the world on their own.

Arendt thus affirms Ralph Waldo Emerson's view that “He only who is able to stand alone is qualified for society.” Emerson’s imperative, to take up the divine idea allotted to each one of us, resonates with Arendt’s Socratic imperative, to be true to oneself. Education, Arendt insists, must risk allowing people their unique and personal viewpoints, eschewing political education and seeking, simply, to nurture independent minds. Education prepares the youth for politics by bringing them into a common world as independent and unique individuals. From this perspective, the progeny of teachers is the educated citizen, someone one who is both self-reliant in an Emersonian sense and also part of a common world.