ASCD SmartBrief Needs a World War II History Lesson

SmartBrief is ASCD’s [Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development] daily e-mail newsletter of all things school-related. Their links point mainly on policy and research news, but SmartBrief also includes a listing of new education jobs and the occasional ad.

Summary: SmartBrief is a bit like the Metamucil of education media; it isn’t tasty, but some folks still have to consume it each day.

Today’s SmartBrief includes this inspirational quote:

If you can’t see the image, here you go: “I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with the greatest caution.”

Having spent a few years reading subscriptions from hundreds of ed-related blogs, newsletters and discussions, one iron-clad guarantee each day – really, it’s as sure as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West – is that few will include any useful information we’d call part of one’s “education.” Casual ed-writers rarely mention anything of substance; it’s all process, or commentary on process, and no content. The ed-tech writers are the worst abusers. You can read 10,000 words about “collaboration,” “conversation” and “skills” and never get a scintilla of real academic content.

But sometimes they try. They struggle and strain – listen closely as you read and you can hear the grunting! – to throw in a quip, quote or factoid that, in their mind, echoes timeless meaning from the pedestal on which their education degree has placed them. Boy, do they try.

And that posturing without any real education to back it up is how we get the insertion of inspirational quotes like the one above. Wernher von Braun, the quote’s author, is described simply by ASCD as “German-American rocket scientist.” Short shrift, kids.

Wernher von Braun wasn’t just a wildly-intelligent scientist; he was the Nazi creator of the V-2 rocket that wrought destruction and thousands of civilian casualties upon London, Antwerp and other European cities during World War II.

von Braun’s story is intriguing and filled with fantastic nuance. It’s a mix of suspicious situations, claims both supported and refuted, and guesses about human nature as it relates to addressing opportunities. He claimed to have been forced to join the party in 1937, but has ties to the Nazis going back to 1933; he said he was most unwilling to hand-select and oversee slaves from the Buchenwald concentration camp, but there are testimonies of severe mistreatment of these prisoners at von Braun’s direction; by some accounts, he was a genius in the wrong place at the wrong time, and by others, a Nazi fanatic.

Wernher von Braun, young

Despite the lack of clarity in assessing von Braun’s life, we can agree that he was a brilliant opportunist. He surrendered to American forces in 1945 and was given special immunity – the US had their eye on von Braun for some time, recognizing his past contributions and those likely to come. By year’s end he was living in the US with a clean record and working as a foundational piece of Operation Paperclip, the United States’ program to employ former Nazi scientists after the end of the war. [Side note: The operation is rumored to have been given the name "paperclip" because of the new work histories and background reports, minus black marks like Nazi party and military affiliations, attached to their files.]

von Braun was made a full US citizen in 1955; his work with NASA in the 1960s was of great value to the US victory in the race to put a man on the moon.

Was von Braun’s commitment to his life’s work so stringent that he would willingly collaborate with the Nazis for the sake of advancing his research? To what extent did his knowledge of, and potential participation in, human atrocities and targeting civilians in war factor in to his decisions – if at all? Was his willingness to work for the Americans after Germany’s defeat part of a true commitment to aiding a more just power, or was he simply carrying anyone’s water as long as it came with research funding?

… and all of it distilled into “German-American rocket scientist.” Why so lazy? Because the Oprah-style inspirational quote sounded good.

That’s the state of the education media, folks – lots of media, not much education.

If you want to know more about Wernher von Braun as badly as ASCD needs to, the Wikipedia entry isn’t a bad place to start.

*** Can’t help but point out – ASCD chose an “inspirational quote” by a Nazi SS officer on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

10 Responses to “ASCD SmartBrief Needs a World War II History Lesson”

  1. Wayne Kerr says:

    Lazy, just as those who describe W. A. Mozart as a “German composer” are lazy.

  2. Well, what are you supposed to do when identifying the source of a quote? Write a full biography? Or poll reactionary bloggers to find the precise four or five-word combination they will find acceptable?

  3. Wayne,

    Good example. Germany/Austria turns into po-tay-to/po-tah-to frequently, it seems. Not only is it laziness, it’s a genuine disinterest in intellectual curiosity.

  4. Stephen,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. It’s an honor to have an expert troll respond so quickly to a blog post.

    I wouldn’t have chosen the quote in the first place.

    I do appreciate your point re: “reactionary,” though. I am blessed to have been equipped with the knowledge to react, and I do hope that others experience the liberal arts as I have – including those who work for ASCD.

  5. Wayne Kerr says:

    Yes, I remembered that about five seconds after I hit the submit button. Of course, he wasn’t technically Austrian either, as his birth pre-dated the modern states of Austria and Germany.

    That still doesn’t change my point: do you honestly expect to see a complete biography of everyone whenever their quotes are used? This, in a newsletter with “brief” in its title?

    I must say that I’m impressed with this post. Most people tend to restrict masturbation to an action; you’ve turned it into a form of self-congratulatory literature.

  6. KVC says:

    Well done, you! All that liberal arts education really DID make you a better person! We’re all ever so impressed by how far you can go in response to such teensy weensy provocation. Thank you so much for displaying your knowledge and erudition. It’s hard not to be smug and self-congratulatory when you’re just SO special!

  7. Wayne/KVC,

    Thanks for your contributions.

    We don’t need complete biographies – though the internet is such a big place, and so full of information, that it’s easy enough to link to one when including even a descriptive paragraph is out of place. There’s no harm in linking to a basic summary like a Wikipedia entry [apologies to NASA, but their bio isn't comprehensive].

    But quotes – even the inspirational kind – have context:

    “… everything I did, I did for my country.”

    This sounds alright. Serving one’s country is noble, and this isn’t too far from the famed, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do from your country.”

    One quip was issued by John Kennedy; the other by Pol Pot. Quotes don’t exist in vacuums.

  8. Ben F says:

    Matthew, I enjoyed your post, and I’m sorry you have to endure responses that are so vicious. It’s the context that makes the terse attribution upsetting: an anti-intellectual, anti-content education journal converting a likely Nazi into an inspirational speaker –it’s the kind of mindless deed that their friggin’ ideology is going to make more and more common among our dumbed down populace. Indeed a knowledge-lite, narrowly-educated population is more likely to become Nazified than one that has been systematically taught the facts about history and human nature.

  9. Michael says:

    Indeed a knowledge-lite, narrowly-educated population is more likely to become Nazified than one that has been systematically taught the facts about history and human nature.

    Unfortunately true. Witness Republicans these days.

  10. Michael,

    You witnessed a Republican when you read this blog post.

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