Confronting fascism in the classroom

What do we do when confronted with a student who says he admires the ideology of Mussolini? Or when a student asks, “Aren’t Jews generally more rich?”

These and other interactions have been happening in my classroom recently as I teach authoritarianism (first Mussolini, now Hitler, later, Stalin and Castro) in IB History. A few years ago, I think I would be much more alarmed by these kind of statements, but now, although I am still somewhat alarmed, I like to think I have more patience in responding. I take my role as an adult mentor seriously. The students need to know that expressing admiration for fascism and repeating anti-Semitic stereotypes might be condemned in many social situations. But they also need to know why.

I’m a history teacher. But I don’t care much about whether my students remember the exact date of Indian independence or the name of the terrorist who inadvertently started World War One. I do like it when they know these, and it is helpful to their understanding of context and their internalizing a timeline of events- but I believe that facts should be learned only in service to thinking about ideas. It’s much more important to me that my students understand the conditions of British imperialism in India (and imperialism elsewhere) and the Indians’ urge towards sovereignty than it is that they know the date (18 July 1947) India was declared independent. It’s more important that they ponder through the tangled web of events that began World War One, and consider how nationalism and rivalries played a role, then focus on memorizing the name of Gavrilo Princip. Therefore, I organize my history classes around concepts (imperialism, power) rather than content. After all, we can’t teach everything. A case study (British imperialism in India) can illuminate a concept when we study it in depth, and other case studies (French imperialism in West Africa, British imperialism in China, Belgian imperialism in the Congo) can add more breadth to a student’s understanding. Then we can circle back the concepts we began with.

So when a student asks a provocative question, I need to remember that they are a student. My IB History kids are 16 and 17 years old, and many of them are encountering this material in-depth for the first time. They haven’t previously read ‘What is Fascism’ by Benito Mussolini or ever actually seen a video of Hitler giving a speech. I want to hear their natural curiosities instead of shutting them down. They need to work through the attraction of Hitler’s nationalism to Germans of the time, and the appeal of Mussolini’s open-ended ideology. I don’t want my students to pay lip service to the ideals of democracy and republicanism and world peace; I’d rather they arrived to these ideals after thinking through, even briefly empathizing with, the alternatives. 15 years of experience teaching has helped me arrive at a working solution. I am explicit about explaining how such ideas may be received in social and academic contexts today. I also invite them to reflect more on their own thinking: “What do you admire about Mussolini? Why do think others might have admired him (or admire him today)? Why might others condemn him?” Last week I showed a news clip of neo-fascists in Italy. I wanted the students to see how neo-fascists present themselves and how others respond in the real world today. I encouraged my student asking about Jews to talk to her Jewish friends: “How do you think they might answer when you express that idea about Jews being rich? What would you say if you heard someone say all members of your religion are rich, or middle-class, or poor?”

If I want my students to take their ideas seriously, then I need to take them seriously too. If we don’t listen to our young people and give them space to work out (challenge) their ideas, they will be even more in danger of extreme ideologies- because immunity comes from knowledge, not ignorance.

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