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Massachusetts HS History Assignment Asking Students To Determine If Trump Is/Is Not “Fascist” Irks Some, Raises Serious Doubts About Critical Thinking Goal

January 12, 2019

A history class assignment asking students to analyze President Donald Trump to determine if he qualified to be called a fascist has irked some parents of students in Haverhill High School (HHS).

The Eagle-Tribune reports that the assignment was given by “veteran history teacher Shaun Ashworth” and essentially asked students to find “Evidence that Mr. Trump talks/behaves like a Fascist” or “Evidence Mr. Trump does not behave like a Fascist.”

The Eagle-Tribune writes that the assignment caused some uproar on social media, particularly on a Facebook page open only to parents of children attending Haverhill schools. 

In his letter about the assignment offered in the high school’s World History II class, HHS Principal Glenn Burns said the idea behind the assignment was not meant to denigrate President Trump but to get students to think critically.

“Upon reflecting with a team from the History Department on the assignment, ‘Some People Claim that Donald Trump is a Fascist: Time to check it Out!’ it was evident to us that the prompt may have skewed the debate or provided the perception that we were looking for scholars to prove Donald Trump was a fascist. This was not the intention of the assignment and we apologize to those that felt that was the experience we were trying to create,” Burns wrote.

He added that the history department intended to “engage scholars in relevant and thought-provoking tasks and sometimes when developing these lessons ‘hot-button’ issues are discussed.”

The “prompt” that Burns refers to is perhaps the heart of the problem with Ashworth’s assignment: it’s a nearly 16-year-old opinion piece called “Fascism Anyone?” posted in Free Inquiry, an online journal published by the “Center for Inquiry in association with the Council for Secular Humanism” (as described by Free Inquiry).  Clearly labeled by Free Inquiry as an opinion piece, “Fascism Anyone?”, which was written in 2003 by a “Laurence W. Britt,” became popular and has been widely circulated on the internet as “The 14 Characteristics of Fascism,” or some variation thereof. Some iterations further claimed the piece was written by a “Dr. Britt.” At the time of its publication, many critics of then-President George W. Bush thought Britt’s essay was applicable to Bush’s administration.

Burns states in his letter that the history assignment “was developed to assess scholars’ ability to apply correctly Dr. Britt’s 14 characteristics of a fascist leader,” though it isn’t at all clear that “Dr. Britt” is an actual doctor. Snopes, an online fact-checking site, stated that Laurence Britt is not a doctor at all but is rather, at best, “an amateur historian.”

A comment alleged to have been posted online by Britt states:

“I never made a claim that I was a ‘Dr.’ Someone on the internet made that ASSUMPTION when they passed on the artice.  I am a retired bsunessman with a life long interst in history and current events.” [sic throughout]

The New Boston Post notes Britt is described by Free Inquiry as the author of a 1998 novel called June 2004, which Amazon ranks “#4,242,016 in Books.” The novel is published by Wayne Braithwaite Publishing. A separate Amazon search shows only five other works published under the Wayne Braithwaite imprint, all written by a Lloyd Hollis Crooks.

Free Inquiry writes that Britt’s novel “depicts a future America dominated by right-wing extremists.”

After “reflecting” with the history department on the assignment, Burns wrote that “it was evident to us that the prompt may have skewed the debate or provided the perception that we were looking for scholars to prove Donald Trump was a fascist. This was not the intention of the assignment and we apologize to those that felt that was the experience we were trying to create. Our team discussed at length how to provide a more balanced prompt that could enrich this topic and discussion.”

No mention was made in either Burns’ letter or in the Eagle-Tribune’s reporting whether it was explained to students involved in the assignment that Britt’s article was an opinion piece and not an authoritative document on fascism or its characteristics. The Post observes that Britt’s opinion piece does not provide any definition of fascism, although a note posted below the op-ed makes a very basic reference to a Webster’s Dictionary definition.

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