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History and government are central to the curriculum of a liberal education found in K-16 school systems. We teach these subjects to young people so that they can understand the world around them. These are critical disciplines as we prepare students to contribute to society in a meaningful way, and we engage students on these topics to guide them to participate in the democratic society in which they live.
Teachers of history, government, and literature zero in on the Holocaust to illustrate the causes and consequences of extreme prejudice. The Holocaust is a tragic and vivid example of what happens to a society when hatred, brutality, and elevation of genocidal sadism are turned into national policy (Anti-Defamation League, Echoes, and Reflections: Leaders in Holocaust Education, pg 19). No society is free from the risk of engaging in genocide, but the Holocaust seems to hold a special or unique place in the history of mankind, and certainly, in the mind of historians, both Jewish and non-Jewish. As the generation of Holocaust survivors becomes smaller and smaller, it is imperative that educators across the academic spectrum take on the responsibility of telling their stories. Only through a teacher’s careful understanding of this topic can our students move forward to say “never again” to the rise of fascism, the normalization of brutality, and the legitimization of mass murder.
Since genocide is still a potential mass event in the modern world, as educators, we must help our students identify the root causes of prejudice, bigotry, hatred, and violence with the intention of helping students avoid these evils by refusing to participate in them. Unfortunately, the task at hand for teachers is facing an ever-rising tide of obstacles. The number of hate crimes and incidents against minority groups is on the rise in the United States. State and federal funding for multicultural education and prejudice reduction programs are being cut or eliminated. The mainstream media does it best to act as a watchdog against anti-democratic influences such as white nationalist and anti-Semitic groups, but many in the educational community feel that our democratic institutions are under fire and eroding as elements within the federal government support and align themselves with these extremist groups. There is also an entire faction within academia that denies that the Holocaust ever happened. These extremists base their beliefs in anti-Semitism and engage in the “Big Lie” until their message is normalized and accepted by the general population.
Teaching about the Holocaust is a challenging task that should not be taken lightly. It is a visually upsetting time in world history (it is also part of the US History or US Government curriculum). Young adolescents must be carefully prepared to deal with the concepts and images of mass murder, and they have to be taught how to properly react to the images and feelings that come with them. Once students are exposed to the extreme human barbarism that characterizes the Holocaust, they must be given a wide variety of modalities with which to express their views, their emotions, and their newly-integrated understanding of the world in both its past and present forms.
Any curricular unit on the Holocaust lends itself to an interdisciplinary approach to teaching this subject. While it is couched in history and government, the Holocaust contains a rich body of literature and art that teachers can use to instruct and allow students to express themselves. Those who lived and died during the Holocaust still speak to us through such works as “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Elie Wiesel’s Night. These works are part of middle and high school language arts curricula across the United States and around the world. Teachers must stay vigilant to keep them there and resist the urge to have them banned or removed. Science teachers can also work with social science educators to discuss such topics as the nature of race, the pseudo-science of Nazi eugenics, and to debunk ideas on race that contribute to stereotyping and scapegoating. (For a detailed discussion on the nature of race and the place of the Holocaust in that discussion, see the author’s article entitled “What is Race,”. Teachers of English, creative writing, and journalism can use the Holocaust and the current rise of white nationalism to help students engage in a national discourse that reveals the anti-democratic nature of these ideologies and to expose them for the hatred that they actually are. (One interdisciplinary unit on the Holocaust can be found on the web entitled “The Beast Within,” part of the author’s Cassutto Memorial Pages on Cyberlearing-World.com.
The primary goal of Holocaust education, integrated into the core curriculum within K-16 education, can be achieved through careful preparation, instruction, and expression of tolerance and acceptance as ideals that reflect “the better nature of our angels.” Holocaust education has applications for today in international affairs as students study the genocides of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. The way the Nazi persecuted not only Jews by homosexuals has application in the growing LGBTQ community as they strive for equal right s in the United States and around the world. The rise of anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s can be used to examine the specter of Islamophobia in the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. The Holocaust is a critical piece to the puzzle of peace in the Middle East as students strive to understand how the state of Israel came to be and the challenges Israel faces within the Arab world. And finally, the deliberate erosion of democratic institutions in the United States within what has been called by some in the current administration as the “deconstruction of the administrative state” can be examined in the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany during the 1930s. These currents in political science, modern history, journalism, and science are all ways that teachers can use the Holocaust to help their students create a better world free from prejudice, discrimination, and genocide.