The Holocaust has never been more relevant than it is today.
And anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 57 percent in the past year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Yet just last week, a comprehensive study of Holocaust awareness was released concluding that Americans are forgetting this vital chapter of our history.
After more than 1,350 interviews, Schoen Consulting found that 11 percent of U.S. adults and more than one-fifth of millennials either haven’t heard of the European Holocaust or aren’t sure what it is.
From 1933-1945, approximately 12 million people – 6 million of whom were Jews – were systematically put to death by Nazi forces.
However, even many of those who admitted to having some knowledge of these events were unsure about the specifics. For instance, one third of respondents – and 41% of millennials – said that only 2 million people were killed.
This is unacceptable.
But not unexpected.
Not in a country that has made education such a low priority for decades.
Only a handful of states mandate Holocaust curriculum in schools – Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Michigan, Indiana, New York and Rhode Island – and each one does so to varying degrees of detail.
Other states like Pennsylvania have laws strongly encouraging the teaching of the Holocaust but not requiring it outright.
Wasn’t this why 42 states adopted Common Core – to make sure all students were learning the same things?
Well, first of all those standards were only adopted in English and Math. Social studies standards were far too controversial to make it over the partisan divide.
A principal in Delaware refused to let a concentration camp survivor speak to students because he didn’t think it was rigorous enough under Common Core.
Another district tried to encourage critical thinking by asking students if the Holocaust was true or if it had been exaggerated – as if proven facts were up for debate.
Additionally, the reading standards push for texts to be taught as if they were standardized test items without proper context for a robust understanding. Combine that with an emphasis on texts that are exceedingly complex and it’s no wonder that young people’s understanding of this important part of history is fuzzy.
And I write this as an educator who taught the Holocaust in middle school for more than a decade.
The first thing I did was throw those corporate-written standards in the trash.
My 8th graders and I watched various award-winning documentaries such as “Auschwitz: If You Cried, You Died.” We read the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but supplemented it with various interviews and autobiographical articles from concentration camp survivors and even a presentation from community members who had first-hand experience of these events until their age and health made that impossible.
The whole unit culminated in a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.
Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the norm.
Though America students make up one third of the 1.7 million visitors to the National Holocaust Museum, 80 percent of Americans say they have never visited any Holocaust museum.
I get it. Teaching about this is hard.
It’s ugly and scary and repulsive – but it’s meant to be.
The DC National Holocaust Memorial recommends the following guidelines for teaching about the European Holocaust:
“Be sensitive to appropriate written and audiovisual content. One of the primary concerns of educators teaching the history of the Holocaust is how to present horrific images in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Graphic material should be used judiciously and only to the extent necessary to achieve the objective of the lesson. You should remind yourself that each student and each class is different and that what seems appropriate for one may not be appropriate for all . . . Some students may be so appalled by the images of brutality and mass murder that they are discouraged from studying the subject further. Others may become fascinated in a more voyeuristic fashion, subordinating further critical analysis of the history to the superficial titillation of looking at images of starvation, disfigurement, and death . . . There is also a tendency among students to glorify power, even when it is used to kill innocent people. Many teachers indicated that their students are intrigued and, in some cases, intellectually seduced by the symbols of power that pervaded Nazi propaganda (e.g., the swastika and/or Nazi flags, regalia, slogans, rituals, and music). Rather than highlight the trappings of Nazi power, you should ask your students to evaluate how such elements are used by governments (including our own) to build, protect, and mobilize a society. Students should also be encouraged to contemplate how such elements can be abused and manipulated by governments to implement and legitimize acts of terror and even genocide.”
That’s what I tried to do.
This is the first year that I’m not explicitly teaching the Holocaust – and the only reason is because I’m not teaching 8th grade, I’m teaching 7th.
It’s not in my curriculum.
However, I know my students will get it when they advance to the next grade.
I wish that were true everywhere.
Unfortunately, a deep knowledge of history does not come from a society obsessed with standardization and privatization.
In fact, our policy of high stakes testing is an artifact of the eugenicist movement that inspired the Nazis. Our privatization movement is a holdover from the white flight reactionaries trying to circumvent the integration of Brown vs. Board.
We don’t do a comprehensive job teaching the Holocaust because we haven’t, as a society, learned its lessons.
We don’t teach the consequences of the European Holocaust because we haven’t come to terms with the consequences of our own American varieties. We haven’t acknowledged the effects of Europeans conquest and genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade, Jim Crow, Japanese internment or the prison industrial complex.
To teach the Holocaust we must take a step toward understanding where we, as a nation, have engaged in similar practices.
These are lessons vital to our survival and progress.
And that is exactly why it hasn’t been made a priority. It is exactly why we don’t have equitable education for all children in America.
Doing so would upset the status quo.
Doing so would be troublesome to the powers that be who use a racial and economic caste system to keep us all in line.
Understanding the Holocaust prevents us from reliving it.
And the people in power want to keep that door unequivocally open.
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