Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Should students learn about the Holocaust?

This is the question I'd like to ask certain members of the armchair class--namely, those who argue vigorously against the existence of an established body of facts that all children should learn.

Those who actually go out into the field and plumb the depths of knowledge of our high school graduates may have a different answer.  As a recent article in the Philadelphia reports:

When Rhonda Fink-Whitman decided to test college students' knowledge of the Holocaust, lugging a video camera to four local campuses, she discovered some amazing facts: 
Adolf Hitler was the leader of Amsterdam. Josef Mengele was an author. And JFK led the Allies during World War II, assisted by an American Army general named Winston Churchill. Hardly any students had heard of the Holocaust, the Nazis' systematic murder of six million Jews. 
And when her questions turned to the Night of Broken Glass, the Nuremberg Trials, or the meaning of the phrase the Final Solution, forget it. 
Some of the Pennsylvania legislators with whom Fink-Whitman has consulted would like to address this cluelessness by mandating Holocaust instruction in Pennsylvania's public schools. But Pennsylvania already mandates world history, and the approved world history textbooks, not so surprisingly, do cover the Holocaust. So perhaps instead the state could stipulate that teachers not skip entire chapters in world history textbooks.

One might also ask teachers to hold students responsible for actually internalizing, as opposed to merely appreciating, the core content of these textbooks by assigning fewer projects and power point presentations, and more (gasp!) quizzes and tests that require (shudder!) students to recall facts at the risk of (horrors!) not earning a decent grade in the course.

After all, as Fink-Whitman's findings suggests, it's just possible that the Holocaust isn't the only major event about which today's high school students have learned next to nothing that's actually true:
In September, she visited Temple, Drexel, and Pennsylvania State Universities and the University of Pennsylvania, stopping students at random to ask basic questions.
What was the Holocaust?

"The Holocaust, um, I'm on the spot now," answered a Temple student.

Where did the Holocaust happen?

"I have no idea," responded a Penn State student. "Europe?"

How long ago was it?

"Was that like 1800?" answered a Penn student. "I want to say 300 years ago."

The name Eisenhower was a mystery. Students didn't know why U.S. troops invaded Normandy, much less where it is.

"It's over near England and Germany and all that jazz," a Temple student offered.
However elusive Historical Truth is, do we really want it to be this elusive?  However oppressive it is for authorities to impose facts on students, do we really want students to enjoy lives that are this fact-free? However arbitrary the choice of what to include in a cannon of knowledge for mandatory history instruction, might there, just possibly, be some things that we don't want ever to lose to history?

5 comments:

Laura in AZ said...

We never covered it in my high school either... I believe it may have been mentioned because of the mini-series that was on TV at the time. (I am dating myself here!) In college, it was only covered minimally...

However, my parents made sure I knew about it...if there was a documentary about it on TV, I watched it. They talked to me about it. We had books at home about it... etc.

I homeschool my daughter, and will do the same with her (as appropriate)... she has Aspergers, so it will be a little harder to find the right way to broach this subject - though she does know the basic facts about it already - more than these "college" students. She just hasn't seen any documentaries about it, she's read some about it.

Ignorance about important historical events - such as the Holocaust - truly angers me... and scares me. It allows us to forget...

Anonymous said...

In elementary school, we did no history to speak of. In intermediate school, we did American history. Three years, each year starting with Columbus. In high school we finally got world history, over two years, which was just enough time to reach WWII, but we really skimmed over a lot of history!

If we want students to learn history, it might be best to start, at the latest, in middle school. Three years of world history in middle school, followed by a more advanced course in high school (which would cover more material since, you know, the kids would be familiar with some of it already!) might do the trick.

Anonymous said...

I have lived all my life in the U.K. I can't remember being taught about the Holocaust at school. I think it was just something I picked up from T.V. documentaries and books.
I have friends about my own age (50s) who know the name Adolph Hitler but don't recognize his face on TV documentaries.
There is a political aspect: we have a few activists who are outright holocaust deniers, but it is becoming more acceptable to state that the holocaust did happen, but it wasn't Jews who were mass-murdered, but "communists, socialists, trade unionists and Roman Catholics" (George Galloway, MP, if I remember correctly. He was a Catholic at the time).
The subject is charged with the Palestinian "issue": mentioning the holocaust (except as described by Galloway) is likely to get you accused of being a zionist. In many circles that is as bad, if not worse, than being a called Nazi.

NickofBrookline said...

Growing up in a town that was half Jewish, and in which there was located a non-profit Facing History and Ourselves which created a Holocaust unit for 8th graders, and having parents who were Jewish and were alive during the Holocaust, I received a solid grounding in those facts. Should everyone receive such a grounding? It probably wouldn't hurt is an understatement. Kids need to understand just how wrong a society can go, so that they can undertand the effects of "following orders" and racial hatred. It can be a bit rough going for young ones to see pictures of bodies being piled up in mass graves, but the stories of Germany, Russia, China, Cambodia in the 20th century are nearly as important as the stories of the U.S. and Canada, which didn't go over the edge in the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

"We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful."