What has to be explained is not the fact that the man who is hungry steals or the fact that the man who is exploited strikes, but why the majority of those who are hungry don't steal and why the majority of those who are exploited don't strike.
--Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism
Nazi Culture would seem at first to be a very esoteric subject to teach to the rather practical-minded and not very cosmopolitan students of a northern New Jersey state college. But of course it is really a distancing technique, a Verfremdungseffekt a la Brecht. Teaching fascism is not really teaching fascism per se, but an angle for teaching capitalism and socialism. And teaching Nazi culture is an angle for teaching some of the purposes of capitalist ideology.
Students at Ramapo College come from working-class, lower-middle-class, and professional backgrounds. The majority are Catholic, some are adults, and most of them hold jobs while going to school. (They talk a lot about the nature of their work in relation to the course, e.g., hierarchies on the job and the Nazi divide-and-conquer technique of building hierarchies.) Like most working-class students they are, and should be, resistant to the kind of radical teaching that simply intones "socialism good, capitalism bad." In courses I have taught that were directly about capitalism or socialism, usually half the students have been with me, and the other half (thinking before I opened my mouth that I was going to try to convert them) have either resisted openly or, worse, given me what they thought I wanted and gone into resentful inner emigration. I know this is a fairly universal experience for teachers at non-elite colleges, and we usually save our ego and sense of accomplishment by rationalizing: "No teacher can reach everyone."
But to my surprise I found in the classes on fascism I seemed to be reaching everyone. Probably the number of "cadre" produced will be no greater than usual (nor do I consider that the purpose of teaching), but that normally resistant 50% had their notions of capitalism and socialism severely shaken up, perhaps for the first time, and they learned to recognize a historical phenomenon as a reality in their own lives: they became very sensitive to fascist tendencies anywhere. And perhaps more important, these students who have had very little practice in analyzing their society were able to approach the most important question of the course--why do people act against their own interest--with at least the beginnings of real concrete answers.
On the first day of class I asked students to write a paragraph on "What is fascism?" Most of them got in something about militarism, anti-semitism, and an authoritarian all-powerful state, and almost no one mentioned anything about the economic structure, except that about a third assumed it was some kind of communism. (I handed back these little essays on the last day of class without comment, so they could see for themselves whether they had learned anything.) I didn't say anything about that assumption till later in the course; what interested me then was that universally everyone knew fascism was bad stuff. No need to try to persuade anyone of that. And so, uniquely in my teaching experience, the teacher and all the students were able to start out with a shared value system. I was able to make use of a knee-jerk reaction. (Clearly, the course would never work the same in Germany.) Both the problem and the opening then became that anything that looks like fascism is also bad. Unfortunately, lots of things about some socialist countries look like fascism. It is necessary to be open about that, not to ridicule students' confusion but to discuss Stalinism and the conditions under which socialism developed in the Soviet Union. But fascism is a form of capitalism, the epitome in fact of capitalism, and the more students learn about the structures of fascist economy and even ideology, the more they themselves see the parallels to the society they live in. They are very receptive to discussions of true and false community; in fact it...