The head of public education in New York State, MaryEllen Elia, is under fire for supporting a teacher’s decision to provide students with an assignment that asked them to argue for or against the Nazis’ “Final Solution,” their plan to murder millions of Jewish people in Europe during World War II.
Although the assignment, which was given to English language arts students in a high school in Oswego, New York, in February, says it is “not for you to be sympathetic to the Nazi point of view,” it requires students to imagine they are writing a “Top Secret” Nazi report to “Senior Nazi Party Members” that provides reasons “for or against the Final Solution.” Students are told to support their arguments using “medical, legal, governmental, military, or other” sources.
The backlash against the report has been far-reaching, but Elia, the education commissioner in New York State, initially defended it.
“I think it’s certainly a question where you want students to think on both sides and analyze … which position a person is taking,” Elia said, according to a report by Syracuse.com. “That idea of being able to identify the perspective an article has or a writer has is a very important skill.”
Elia also said the appropriateness of the assignment should be defined based on how it is presented in class and the background information provided.
Elia further defended the assignment by saying it is “critical” for students to identify and analyze positions.
“The concept of having students identify a particular position is pretty critical, whether they can analyze a position, and then decide whether to agree or not,” said Elia.
Elia would later walk back her support, saying after doing her “homework to determine the facts in this situation,” she agrees “the assignment should not have been given.”
The comments, delivered in late March and early in April, sparked outrage from parents. The Washington Post reported the executive board of the Hastings-on-Hudson PTSA hammered Elia for supporting the assignment.
“As Commissioner Elia is well aware, our school districts are experiencing a dramatic rise in expressions of hate and intolerance, including a proliferation of swastikas on school property,” the board wrote to the New York Board of Regents. “Our own district has experienced this in recent months. We are disheartened and discouraged that not only did our Commissioner fail to defend tolerance and peace, but worse, she originally supported the hateful assignment. Her limited attempt to fix her initial error in judgment fell flat, and frankly made matters worse.”
Democratic Party State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents Brooklyn, said Elia should resign from her post and that he originally thought the story must be a “sick joke,” according to a report by the New York Daily News.
“Had the assignment been to argue in favor of slavery or other human atrocities, would anyone dare to defend it?” Hikind said. “I honestly couldn’t believe this story when I heard it. I thought it was a sick joke.”