David R. Henderson  

Critical Thinking on the Holocaust

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Since students actually know so little, I must explain the differences between Holocaust deniers, Holocaust minimizers, and Hitler rehabilitationists. I must explain propaganda and euphemism and anti-Zionism. I must acquaint them with fascism, eugenics, Romantic struggle and surrender, Einsatzgruppen and Sonderkommandos, the Wannsee Conference, and so on. I must do so informationally and dispassionately, employing locutions such as "the Holocaust believer would say" and "the Holocaust denier would reply," and "my understanding is." Such reticence is necessary because it is essential that the students decide the capstone question for themselves.

Students are dubious or indifferent about most things. Because of our digitized world, they are predisposed to think that documents are faked (think of Dan Rather's manufactured Texas Air National Guard memos), pictures are Photoshopped, memories are unreliable, testimony is coerced, and so on.

The reason for the capstone paper is to prepare students to recognize the methods employed by malicious or unhinged deceivers: 9/11 truthers, religious cultists, UFO abductees, and so on. I want them to learn to test claims with the use of logic and evidence rather than relying on their feelings. I want to erode the intellectual laziness that lets students adopt all-purpose answers they have been offered to the world's problem, whether it's "the patriarchy," capitalism, or the Jews.

This is from David Clemens, "Should Holocaust Deniers Be Heard?", published by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Clemens is a professor at Monterey Peninsula College, the local community college in my community. The whole thing is worth reading.

I don't know if I could have as much self-control in the face of Holocaust denial as Professor Clemens does, but his is admirable. I would be a lousy poker player (I've played once or twice in my life) because my emotions are so clear. But the way I try to get critical thinking in my class is not just to analyze the thoughts of those economists who disagree with me but also to analyze the thoughts and arguments of those economists and students who agree with me on the bottom line but who use lousy arguments to get there. Sloppy Wall Street Journal editorials (and, no, the word "sloppy" is not redundant because many WSJ editorials are very good) are one of my favorites.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (7 to date)
eric writes:

Genocide is beyond the pale, so critics are often apologists merely because any reasonable person stays away. Yet, precisely because communist sympathizers are not taboo, there is a reasonable debate on the size of famines in the Ukraine or China. I've heard "6 million" for 20 years, and it seems to have a lot of precision for such a large number, especially as most other estimates have fluctuated wildly over the decades. Perhaps it was 3? Still horrible, to be sure (one can't emphasize enough, but it needs to be stated so I'm not misunderstood: indefensible, an abomination). Maybe it was 12 million. I think there's room for legitimate questioning of the extent and context of various historical atrocities. It's important to get the facts correct.

David R. Henderson writes:

Well said. Absolutely right.

Philo writes:

Clemens' essay is excellent, and his class sounds like a very good one (though I suspect the word is out, around campus, that the student is *supposed to* end up rejecting Holocaust Denial). Surprisingly, he did not mention whether he has encountered objections to his offering a serious, ostensibly neutral, treatment of Holocaust Denial, and whether his colleagues and administrators have supported his activities. Years ago my university's school newspaper published a paid advertisement from a Holocaust Denial group (it was about as inoffensively worded as was possible, given the basic content), which provoked a storm of protest from the faculty and administration. I got a lot of negative feedback myself for publicly defending the student editors' decision on free-speech grounds.

David R. Henderson writes:

Good point about the word being out. I'll ask him when I take him for coffee in two weeks.
My impression from talking to MPC-ers, though, is that there's relatively little communication between cohorts that are separated by at least one year. So if he teaches it once a year and does it in the same semester each year, that might not be much of a problem.

Anon. writes:

The goal is good, but the way it is reached seems rather trivial. How many of the same students would have included holocaust deniers before taking the course? Probably very few. A better essay would involve an issue on which the students have no/few priors and the "other side" is at least somewhat reasonable.

Mark Brady writes:

Eric writes:

"Genocide is beyond the pale, so critics are often apologists merely because any reasonable person stays away."

Well said. And for that reason I'm less impressed by Professor Clemens' choice of subject than I would be if he had required his students to look at Stalin's or Mao's atrocities or, even better, the existence of the historical Jesus and/or the evidence for his resurrection. I doubt in such a case he would have written, "In the 15 years I have been assigning this paper, only one student out of hundreds has ever come away granting [the historical Jesus or his resurrection] any legitimacy."

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

Why doesn't he try something really difficult, show his class George Clooney's movie Good Night and Good Luck, and then have them read Stanton Evans' Blacklisted by History. Now that would take some guts.

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