History man?

There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump in the United States has produced much acrimonious debate and lots of anxiety in the education community, in America and elsewhere. There are clearly many questions that this turn of events should prompt us to address about social, political and educational values, at least over time; but one incident in the past couple of days invites comment now. A history teacher in a Californian high school has been placed on leave for comparing Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler. According to reports, Frank Navarro argued that ‘Hitler’s persecution of Jews and rise to power has “remarkable parallels” to Trump’s comments on Latinos, Blacks and Muslims in his own bid for power.’

I won’t offer a view on the merits of Mr Navarro’s analysis; indeed some might suggest that he has violated ‘Godwin’s Law‘, under which anyone who in an argument invokes an analogy with Hitler loses that argument. It is certainly doubtful whether Mr Trump, whatever one might say about him (and lots is being said) is contemplating genocide or the invasion of Canada.

But that is not the question here. Rather, the question is how far an educator should be allowed to go in developing an argument in front of students, even where that argument might not be thought by others to carry merit, or even where it might be thought to state a partisan political position. To assess that further, one could ask whether Mr Navarro would have been suspended if, instead of comparing Donald Trump with Hitler, he had claimed interesting parallels with Winston Churchill. The latter analogy would also have been partisan, though this time in the other direction. And if we transferred the scene from an American High School classroom to a university, would the same or different considerations apply?

The proper test is whether an argument presented in a classroom is framed as an invitation to students to question assumptions and received wisdoms, or whether it amounts to indoctrination. I cannot tell, from the little evidence I have, whether Frank Navarro crossed a line he shouldn’t have; but I am instinctively uneasy about this form of sanction, however questionable his thesis may have been. As his students see him punished for saying what he did, they may well draw the wrong conclusions about the nature of a mature free society.

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4 Comments on “History man?”

  1. Jerry Sullivan Says:

    The US election pitted a candidate who asked each person to vote in terms of his or her group identity and its needs. against one who focused on individuals and asked them to vote in accord with their fears. The first, Hillary Clinton, made the mistake of ignoring the reality that the basic unit of US society is the individual. That ignorance is one reason she lost.

    The other candidate, Donald Trump, appealed to each individual’s deep fears of the “other.” He won, but individual emotions eventually give way to individual interests. Unless he adopts more rational, interest-related policies, he will fail too.

    I can see why one would compare Trump to Hitler, given that both of them appealed to emotions . However, that would be a category error. Hitler targeted group identity and appealed for actions based on that identity. Hillary Clinton and Hitler have something in common here.

    However, it is best to conclude that neither Trump nor Clinton are budding Hitlers. Trump is Trump, sadly.

    Jerry Sullivan
    University of Washington

  2. From your link, “Navarro, an expert on the Holocaust, said school officials declined to read him the email and also declined his request to review the lesson plan with him.” This if true is gross denial of due process.

    Mr Navarro’s offence would appear to be having offended a parent. If so, we should consider this as an example, not of Trumpist censorship,but of the pernicious doctrine that it is wrong to offend.

    • paulmartin42 Says:

      I blame the UN and its poorly written charter of children’s rights which has resulted in University no platforming seeping down the edu foodchain.

      Ian Hislop in his very recent Orwell lecture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBG0T06jbec&t=35s) makes the point that freedom means liberty to offend. He cannot say where this strays into incitement but that is the problem with Frank. If a young child says a saucy word (eg about bodily functions) to provoke a reaction adults should just smile.

      In Swansea there is a court case about someone feeding a chip to a seagull. The solution is for someone in authority to shout STOP. Leadership is not about doing the right thing it is a call to a particular posture and yes even a wink of the eye and tiny shake of the head.

  3. Vince Says:

    If you cannot offer up a strawman in a university to posit another timeline and offer hard contrasts then the university should close.
    It’s simply strapping an arm to their torso.

    Godwin’s Law, I feel, is designed to prevent hyperbole being deployed to end debate. It can be akin to when on education is shut down with the comment ‘you’re not a parent, you couldn’t know’.
    But here, I don’t think it is valid to use it.
    If a minority is targeted by a politician. And a member of that minority thinks with reason that they have very real reason to fear. And if they deploy the Hitler/Nazies, I think it’s not only perfectly reasonable to point out the similarities, it’s essential.

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