Opinion
Social Studies Opinion

How Holocaust Denial and Other Bogus Claims Are Poisoning Schools

Don’t be fooled by bothsidesism
By Luke Berryman — July 14, 2022 5 min read
A group of Jews, including a small boy, is escorted from the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland by German soldiers on April 19, 1943. Poland was the site of massive atrocities against Jews and others by the Nazis during WWII.
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In the last few years, the term “bothsidesism” has gained considerable steam. It describes the phenomenon of treating every opinion as equally valid, including falsehoods masquerading as objective fact. This ridiculous idea is poisoning America. People of the opinion that the Earth is flat, or that 5G spreads coronavirus, or that menstruation can be regulated with jade quartz eggs are demanding (and getting) our money and our time. They’re also crippling our schools. Even Holocaust denial—the assertion that the Holocaust was exaggerated or faked—has worked its way into the classroom.

In October 2021, educators in Southlake, Texas, were told if they had a book on the Holocaust in their classroom library, they would also have to have one that with an “opposing” perspective. In January this year, Republican State Sen. Scott Baldwin of Indiana said that educators “need to be impartial” while teaching students about Nazism.

In June, at the American Library Association’s annual conference, author Nancy Pearl suggested that Holocaust denial books had a place in school libraries. She later doubled down in a tweet that said “personally I am offended by Holocaust deniers and anti-vaxxers but maybe we need to hear what they’re saying in order to dispute them.”

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And now, some of Ohio’s Republican state lawmakers are pushing a bill that will enable the Holocaust to be taught “from the perspective of a German soldier.”

Holocaust denial is obviously offensive. But the argument for keeping this denialism out of schools must be more robust than “we don’t need to hear from both sides.” Otherwise, we’re relying on the same logic that’s used to ban books for dubious moral reasons. For example, in January, a Tennessee school board banned Art Spiegelman’s Maus for containing curse words and images of naked mice. According to the New York Times, Spiegelman read the board’s minutes and got the sense that members “were asking ‘why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?’" (In the same interview, he also said of his book and the Holocaust, respectively, “This is disturbing imagery. But you know what? It’s disturbing history.”)

In a similar incident in June, a Wisconsin school board banned Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine for being “all about ‘oppression.’” Its ludicrous reasoning was that the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese Americans shouldn’t be discussed unless educators also cover “how horrible the Japanese were during World War II.”

There are two ways for educators to address bothsidesism, in which Holocaust denial among other dangerously bogus claims have been swept up. The first is to reject outright the absurd idea that every opinion deserves to be heard. Justification for this rejection is found in The Ethics of Belief, an 1877 essay by the mathematician and philosopher William Clifford. It was the first of its kind—an ambitious sweep of the rights and wrongs attached to our ability to form and shape beliefs, ideas, and opinions in the modern era. Clifford called this uniquely human skill a “sacred faculty,” and wrote that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.”

As Clifford describes it: Our thoughts don’t exist independently of our actions. What we think governs everything that we say and do. Second, to accept an idea without evidence requires us to suppress our doubts and to avoid doing proper research. Last—and perhaps most important for us, as educators—we invariably pass our beliefs, ideas, and opinions, along with “our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought,” on to our students.

Logically, then, whether we find Holocaust denial offensive doesn’t matter. It’s simply unethical to teach it—and even to hold it as our own opinion—because there’s overwhelming evidence to show that the Holocaust happened as mainstream academics and historians describe.

Ultimately, this is about more than just Holocaust denial. It’s unethical to teach kids anything on insufficient evidence—whether it’s that COVID-19 vaccines are actually “gene therapy,” or that the 2020 election was stolen, or any other farcical claim from our “golden age” of conspiracies.

If the 20th century shows us anything, it’s that democracy is imperiled when society discards the ethics of belief.

Instead of drifting into bothsidesism, educators must anchor lessons about the Holocaust and other world events in inquiry-based learning. Students must be encouraged to work as professional historians, amassing and analyzing documents, evidence, and testimony, and assembling what they gather into coherent narratives. They must be pushed to think critically, for example, about what the Holocaust was, and about how and why it happened in the way that it did. (Excellent resources for doing just that are freely available online at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.)

The struggle against bothsidesism isn’t just intellectual nitpicking. If the 20th century shows us anything, it’s that democracy is imperiled when society discards the ethics of belief.

In his 1925 book, My Struggle, Adolf Hitler is openly contemptuous of “book-knowledge,” and of people who take positions on “‘the ground of facts’” (note his sarcastic quote marks). He describes “belief” as a means to an end, and that its success must be judged on whether the goal is reached, not on whether “‘well-read people’” accept it (note the sarcastic quotes again). Hence, politicians are to be judged on whether they can get themselves into power, not on how truthful they are. That’s why, for him, political advertising is “only a weapon, although a fearsome one in the hands of a connoisseur.”

Sound familiar? It should. Democracy in the United States and across the western hemisphere is at risk of collapsing under the weight of far-right populist movements with no regard for facts, just like German democracy nearly a century ago. Eight years after Hitler wrote My Struggle, the Nazis formed a dictatorship. Another eight years after that, they were waging a world war and building gas chambers in occupied Poland.

The idea that Holocaust denial should have a place in schools for the sake of “balance” is no more defensible than teaching kids that two plus two might equal five, depending on your opinion of math. The Holocaust isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of fact.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2022 edition of Education Week as Holocaust Denial and Other Bogus Claims Are Poisoning Schools

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