Teaching the Controversy in Rialto

About two thousand students in the eighth grade in California’s Rialto Unified School District—outside San Bernardino, in what Californians like to call the Inland Empire— were recently asked to “read and discuss multiple, credible articles on this issue, and write an argumentative essay, based on cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you [accept the view under discussion].” Students were reminded to “address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim.” Evidently the teachers who devised the assignment wanted to encourage critical thinking, to teach the controversy, to expose the students to all sides of the evidence, to present the strengths and weaknesses. A member of the school board explained, “Teaching how to come to your own conclusion based on the facts, test your position, be able to articulate that position, then defend your belief with a lucid argument is essential to good citizenship.”

Although the rhetoric is familiar, creationists weren’t on the barricades. What was at issue, then? The assignment began, “When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence. For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain.” Contained in it, presumably as a “credible” article, was a text containing as its first sentence, “Within five minutes, any intelligent, open-minded person can be convinced that the Holocaust gassings of World War II are a profitable hoax.” Deborah E. Lipstadt, the historian who triumphed over Holocaust denier David Irving when he sued her in 2000 for calling him a Holocaust denier, commented, “After decades spent in the sewers of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, I don’t horrify easily,” describing the assignment as “the greatest victory for Holocaust denial in well over a decade, if not more.”

Holocaust deniers have long used the same sort of rhetoric that science deniers such as creationists use. When Eugenie C. Scott and I were invited to write a piece on challenges to evolution education for the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution in 2003, we chose to write about the then-emerging “teach the controversy” slogan. Conceding its superficial attractiveness, we warned,

But it is important to examine any such appeal carefully, because it is easy to abuse the public’s willingness to be swayed by such a call. Consider the following appeal: “students should be encouraged to investigate the […] controversy the same way they are encouraged to investigate every other historical controversy. This isn’t a radical point of view. The premises for it were worked out some time ago during a little something called the Enlightenment.” If the rhetoric strikes you as plausible, let us supply the word we omitted: “Holocaust.” If so vicious and sordid a movement as Holocaust denial is enamored of the call to teach the controversy, and uses it with a degree of success on college campuses, it is clear that not all supposed controversies ought to be taught.

We aren’t alone in noting the comparability of the rhetorical styles of creationism and of Holocaust denial. In a Scientific American column published in 2002, for example, Michael Shermer—the author of books on the creationism/evolution controversy and on Holocaust denial—described evolution denial as “the doppelgänger of Holocaust denial, using the same techniques of rhetoric and debate.”

Creationists bristle at the comparison, of course, and it’s understandable. Nobody likes to be compared to a Holocaust denier. But their bristling is not so much principled as it is opportunistic, as is shown by their own willingness to compare their critics to McCarthyites, Stalinists, and, yes, Nazis. Jonathan Wells, a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, reports that after attending a 2002 press conference in Columbus, Ohio, at which the biologist Kenneth R. Miller denounced the efforts of “intelligent design” advocates to undermine the treatment of evolution in the state science standards there, his Discovery Institute colleague Stephen C. Meyer “kept repeating Miller’s pompous declaration with a heavy German accent, sounding for all the world like Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s propaganda chief”—a comparison as accurate as it is tasteful: Hitler’s propaganda chief was in fact Joseph Goebbels.

In their use of slogans like “teach the controversy,” creationists are similarly opportunistic. If they really thought that appealing to the values of critical thinking, openmindedness, freedom of inquiry, and the like was of itself sufficient to validate a proposal for teaching a supposed controversy, then they should have been enthusiastically supporting the Rialto assignment. It’s to their moral credit that they weren’t, of course, but it proves—as if proof were needed by now—that “teach the controversy” and the like are merely rhetorical legerdemain intended to distract the spectator from the intellectual hollowness of the proposals they are supposed to support. There may be value in teaching about scientific controversies, but, as Minda Berbeco, Mark McCaffrey, Eric Meikle, and I recently insisted in The Science Teacher, “If a controversy is presented as a scientific controversy, it should be a genuine scientific controversy.” Ditto for history.

In Rialto, fortunately, the lesson was learned. After protests from parents and groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center—and, unfortunately, reported death threats—the district withdrew the assignment, amid profuse, contrite, and repeated apologies, as well as promises of sensitivity training. Regarding the latter, Lipstadt makes a good point in her commentary: “Sensitivity is not what was missing here. These teachers were not ‘insensitive’ to the victims of the Shoah or to Jews. They were just wrong. Critical thinking and a basic understanding of what happened in Europe 70 years ago are clearly in very short supply throughout the ranks of teachers and administrators involved in this fiasco. What they really need are history lessons.” What the remedy is for those people who are actively trying to confuse educators, and the public, about the scope and limits of critical thinking, however, is harder to say.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.