Holocaust Education for the 21st century: making connections through the humanities
–University of Texas at Dallas Holocaust Scholars Conference March 2020
The study of the Holocaust has undergone several transformations since the end of World War II and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. From its early stages immediately after the war as a means of European recognition of the Holocaust and their roles in it by way of witnessing mass burials, to the emergence of Holocaust Literature through the words of such notable survivors as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi together spanning slightly over 30 years of telling the story that escapes language and eludes the imagination in an effort to release the knowledge unto a world that had begun to forget the past, to the use of Holocaust studies within state regulated educational systems as a way to honor victims, remember a collective past, and teach character to new generations, each phase has served as a stepping stone towards the form of Holocaust Studies that will be required of a world without living victims to bear witness. That future must have a greater connection between the world of academia and the system that exists to train and support teachers of grades 6-12. For it is the very culture of academia, its rigor and constant search for meaning, that will best inform and prepare teachers to shift from their focus away from student engagement and retention towards critical thinking and application of knowledge. The interdisciplinary focus of the Humanities within academia in this manner allows teachers and students to comprehend the most inhumane parts of human history while also re-imagining human existence for a world increasingly plagued by the societal downfalls of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Unlike the earlier phases of Holocaust Studies, the future of the subject, its scholarship, and its overall purpose lies not in its expansion as a field of research at the university level alone, but rather as a rigorous comprehensive required subject influenced and informed by academia for students in grades 8-12.
Holocaust Education for the 21st century: making connections through the humanities
Holocaust education as part of the K-12 system is relatively new, but the process of teaching and learning about the events we now refer to as the Holocaust have been in place, evolving with each generation, since 1945. One could even argue that it was taking place simultaneously with the events of the Holocaust as victims wrote diaries, took photographs, and gathered other forms information for those on “the other side”. The “other side” of the Holocaust is a world that often resembles the normalcy of the pre-Holocaust world, but it is only a resemblance. We speak of the perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders, and victims of the Holocaust, but much like Fredrick Douglass claimed that the system of slavery robbed both him and his slave-owner of their humanity, so too the Nazi system robbed all involved of theirs. Therefore, the post Holocaust world is a world with a scarred humanity. Whether we live in regions of the world that teach this subject or not, we are all part of a slightly shattered world in need of repair.
Just as the process of sharing information changed over time so too the purpose of sharing this information underwent changes over the years. Originally a means of transforming bystanders and collaborators into witnesses of the Nazi regime’s crimes, the purpose of teaching others about this watershed event in human history soon turned the world into witnesses through the written words of survivors like Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi and most recently, UTD’s own Dr. Ozsvath. Each new memoir tells the story, a story that will forever escape language and elude the imagination. There were countless victims beyond the reported millions murdered by the Nazis. Each survivor tells a story that adds a piece to the puzzle helping to create a more complete understanding of the complex reality of the Holocaust world. What should we do as academics, as educators with the ever-growing puzzle of information pertaining to the Holocaust? This paper will address how each phase of Holocaust education has served as stepping stones towards the form of Holocaust Studies that will be required of a world without living survivors to bear witness.
Studying history and being observant in our time means to recognize and foster tolerance, without which the world is subject to acts of discrimination and violence. As Paul Vogt formulated, tolerance is a proactive attitude towards one’s “neighbor” by showing support for the rights and liberties of others, including people one dislikes, disapproves of, or finds threatening. Equally important to knowing the definition of tolerance is that of intolerance. It is often assumed that intolerance is prejudice, when in fact it is discrimination. Tolerance and intolerance are two sides of the same coin; therefore, both involve the active support or denial of rights and liberties of all people regardless of how we personally feel about them. Intolerance, however, has a much longer, violent, and destructive history pointing towards, among others, the eleventh century holy week pogroms and culminating, though not ceasing, in the Holocaust. Indeed, the Holocaust, the destruction of European Jewry, is a tragic manifestation of the consequences of intolerance, indifference, and hatred.
The Holocaust did not happen overnight; nor did it occur in a vacuum. It was the result of a slow shift in definition of what were already understood and accepted concepts of good and evil. The Holocaust, therefore, was possible not because Hitler was a charismatic speaker or a cruel dictator, but because so much of his party’s intellectual and therefore ethical construct was already familiar to the people of Europe. As a result, the people of Germany and the many Nazi party members and soldiers were not deficient in moral sensibilities nor were they quintessentially evil or brutal people; they were in fact ethically sensitive. For them such deeds were simply no longer understood as evil. Herein lies the need for tolerance education. Through a thought-provoking study of the Holocaust and the social environment that led to it students can learn to counteract ignorance, brutality, and contempt fostered by intolerance.
Holocaust education in its earliest form or Phase I can be determined as having taken place from1945-1986 and consisted almost exclusively of memorials, museums, and survivor testimony. In addition to the memorial/museum being at the forefront of the Holocaust world during this time, Holocaust art and literature are slowly being developed. Primarily as a highly personalized medium of communicating the indescribable, authors such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel publish their most well-known titles during this time, including Wiesel’s Night. Almost overnight, or so it seemed, Night brings the Holocaust to the conscious mind of the collective Western world when he won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Since then, many students and high school English teachers alike, have wondered why the Peace prize? Why not the Nobel Prize for Literature? But to me it makes perfect sense. With his novel/memoir he not only re-created the world of European Jews in the final days of the Holocaust but took a world readership on a journey into the depths of human existence, despair, agony, guilt, shame, the raw reality of what it takes to survive evil and what evil looks like. In doing so Wiesel awakened the collective human spirit to consciously want to embrace diversity, empathy, and tolerance. 40 years after the end of World War II and the Nazi grip on Europe, survivors were breaking through the barrier of silence that had engulfed the world. Those within the Holocaust arena began to see a purpose to their work beyond that of preservation. Now places like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau would be joined by many other former concentration and death camps to become Holocaust memorial sites that housed among the ruins museums, testimony archives, artifacts, as well as research and documentation centers.
Night entering the public arena also ushered in a new phase to Holocaust education. In the United States of America, some states slowly saw the need to have a required educational component to their public-school systems. It is not surprising that California would be the first state to have such a mandate, after all they are the only state to have had a Holocaust survivor among its elected state representatives – Tom Lantos, a survivor from Hungary who served in Congress from 1981 until 2008.
The desire to create an educational component among lawmakers and educators alike did not create a bridge between higher education and compulsory public-school education.
Scholars by the 1970’s were aware of the collective neglect towards the subject and began to stir an interest by initiating Holocaust education programs for the wider community, including the first Holocaust conferences. This scholarly analysis led to a new consensus, one that allowed contemporary societies to learn from various stages of the Holocaust. By the 1990’s, Holocaust education had become a focus for Jewish centers, with no fewer than 122 resource centers in the United States available to educators. Furthermore, the number of colleges and universities offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in the subject has significantly increased in the past 20 years becoming an international degree of research and study with new discoveries and theories being made and presented ever day. And while the degree from UT Dallas will not mirror that of Gratz University, for example, there is an understanding of what topics and courses are logically to be included and which ones are superfluous. None of these degrees, however, are to be found in the school of education or as an interdisciplinary study between the school of education and the Humanities.
In the public-school arena today only twelve states have mandates legally requiring schools to teach about the Holocaust, however, most reserve this to high school students and define the mandate as a study of Genocide and Human Rights with only a select few distinctly claiming it to be the study of the Holocaust or the Holocaust and Human Rights. Florida is the only state with a mandate that specifically refers to the study of the Holocaust with its universal definition in relationship to the development of empathy, tolerance and a sense of civic responsibility for appreciation and nurturing of democratic institutions, processes and values. Approximately another ten or so states have a strong recommendation to teaching the Holocaust in schools with Task Forces that have created or provide some level of guidance on the subject. Michigan is the only state having a recommendation in lieu of a mandate to specify the time allowance stating that a maximum of 6 hours shall be allotted to teaching the Holocaust, Slavery, and Human Rights combined. And in the past 20 years especially, educational programs from institutions and organizations such as Yad Vashem’s various traveling exhibits, the Anti-Defemation League’s Echoes and Reflections, The Shoah Foundation’s iwitness and so many more serve as easy fixes to the growing frustration from teachers and parents surrounding the implementation of the Holocaust in schools. In addition to the differing levels of educational mandates, recommendations, and expectations from one state to the other, the greatest challenge to the current Holocaust education environment in the K-12 system is curriculum and teacher preparedness.
None of the above-mentioned mandates have a required teacher certification, endorsement or training program so that there is no such thing as a Holocaust Studies k-12 teaching certificate or History 6-12 with a Holocaust Studies endorsement. In fact, they don’t even have a required number of professional development hours on the subject for history or language arts teachers at any grade level.And in Florida, where I teach, neither of the teacher certification exams in Social Studies or English have any questions referencing the Holocaust in spite of the mandate being in place for almost 25 years. Moreover, no two teachers are expected to have, much less required to have, any level of uniformity in their curriculum. Unlike Holocaust Studies in higher education where there is an understanding that the study of the Holocaust includes the study of the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Regime, The medical and legal paradigm shifts, Propaganda, and Literature to name a few; the K-12 system has no such consensus so that some states may claim to teach the Holocaust, but as a result of the wording of the mandate actually only teach about genocides superficially or teach about discrimination and bullying and the concepts of bystanders vs upstanders. And while all these topics are important to teach in order to help create a world devoid of hate, bigotry, and genocide the lack of a prescribed curriculum and rigorous teacher training expectations have left the Holocaust classrooms across America susceptible to the politicization of the subject and the impression among students that it is an “easy” class where you learn to be a good person. For the vast majority of classroom teachers as a result of limited rigorous training on the topic, Franklin Littell’s findings from the 1970s remain true today “In dealing with the Holocaust the easiest path…for secular teachers was to talk of genocide or man’s inhumanity to man and to avoid confrontation with the Holocaust…”. It is not surprising then that the Simon Wiesenthal Center found in 2018 that ¾ of America’s youth don’t know what Auschwitz was or how many Jews were murdered by the Nazis nor is it surprising that a principal in South Florida thinks the Holocaust is an opinion and not a fact or that Antisemitism is on the rise across the country and the world. Nor should it be surprising that most young people are quick to promote censorship and silencing of opposition at all costs if the opposition is what they consider too controversial or conservative even and therefore fascist. Although not all of America’s young people have had the Holocaust as a course or even a supplement to their courses, hundreds of young people since 1986 have been exposed to what was dubbed Holocaust education, but left to their own devices most teachers have simply taught that to be an upstander one must have zero tolerance for intolerance. That it is the purpose of a high school Holocaust class to prepare students to be vigilant soldiers against fascism without ever examining what fascism is, looks like, or sounds like and without ever looking at what our democratic values and constitution promote. It would seem much of these mandates and recommendations, and to some extent even the state Task Forces created to guide and assist state education programs are more about style than substance. As the contemporary Holocaust classroom is far more likely to want to ban books than learn from them. While something is often better than nothing, what does this existing system say about the future of Holocaust education?
As a Holocaust scholar and educator, I believe this to be one of the most important subjects for the future of modern society. We must ask ourselves what is the purpose to Holocaust education in the K-12 system? How are we preparing to teach this subject when we are unable to rely on the testimony of living survivors? Currently, the very things that make the Holocaust unique are often the aspects that are overlooked or even ignored by Holocaust educators outside of academia rendering the process and the purpose of Holocaust education in secondary schools moot. Studying the Holocaust and other genocides is like climbing mountains. The Holocaust is the Mount Everest of all genocides. If you can climb Mt Everest you can climb any mountain but climbing other mountains does not guarantee your ability to climb Mt. Everest. Understanding the role society played within the modern era resulting in the rise of Nazism and the paradigm shifts that paved the way for the Holocaust is an essential component to the development of a more harmonious 21st century world. It is an essential component to understanding genocide in general. If we are to create a world where war is unheard of and respect for differences is the norm, then we must create a Holocaust education program for the 21st century. Susan Bitensky in The Plot to Overthrow Genocide states, “all of the existing statutes mandate instructing schoolchildren about genocide…why not against or about and against genocide?” Ultimately, Bitensky brings to light the lack of clarity in the language of many statutes and lend themselves therefore, to a variety of interpretations. She goes on to state that “an ideal statute should combine the macro and the micro approaches in order to ensure that mandated Holocaust education is not superficial and never a sham”. In other words, these statutes require detailed clarity in order to have any “teeth”, something the state curricula in the sciences tends to do better than the humanities.
The Humanities could learn a thing or two from the field of Science. For almost 20 years the field of Science has included STEM. It slowly but surely developed into the preferred method of teaching all the sciences including math in middle and high schools across America. What can Holocaust education learn from STEM? Primarily it is the effective and efficient use of partnerships between academia and the public-school system. In the field of Holocaust education it would mean bridging the gap between the understandings of the term Holocaust Education, what is studied? How is it approached? What is the objective to such a course of study and how is it measurable? But most importantly, who is qualified to teach it? The future of Holocaust education is entirely dependent on streamlining the teacher training process and treating this complex part of history with the same level of rigor and respect as we treat the other core subjects to our human development. If an English teacher certified in grades 6-12 is expected to take an additional 60 hours of training in teaching Reading, an essential pre-existing component to her subject area, then surely all English and History teachers should have to do the same with the Holocaust, a subject most people over the age of 35 were not formally exposed to in school.
We are in the year 2020 and with it should come much clearer vision about our collective future and the role Holocaust education plays in it. In 2020 it is not enough to have 10th graders read the novel Night and complete a packet on literary devices found throughout the novel or to take a course titled Holocaust Studies and spend half a school year discussing the Breakfast Club, Schindler’s List, and the popular What Would You Do Series with John Quinones. It is not enough for students to say Never Again and take selfies with the hashtag I remember. And it is not enough to wait for students to enter college to be finally exposed to a comprehensive interdisciplinary understanding of the topic.
Holocaust Education must have a greater connection between the world of academia and the system that exists to train and support teachers of grades 6-12. Universities such as UT Dallas that have both a college of education and a humanities program that includes Holocaust studies need to pave the way and create interdisciplinary programs that allow students to graduate with a degree in Holocaust education for secondary grades. For it is the very culture of academia, its rigor and constant search for meaning, that will best inform and prepare teachers to shift their focus away from student engagement and retention and towards critical thinking and application of knowledge. The interdisciplinary focus of the Humanities within academia in this manner allows teachers and students to comprehend the most inhumane parts of human history while also re-imagining human existence for a world increasingly plagued by the societal downfalls of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Unlike the earlier phases of Holocaust Studies, the future of the subject, its scholarship, and its overall purpose lies not in its expansion as a field of research at the university level alone, but rather as a rigorous comprehensive required subject influenced and informed by academia for students in grades 8-12.
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