Current events have shown that even those in the highest levels of government are sometimes ignorant about the facts of the Holocaust — like Poland’s prime minister, who in the context of the debate on that country’s new law on Holocaust speech said Jews were complicit in the Holocaust. Then there’s former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who last year said Hitler, unlike Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
If our leaders engage with this kind of rhetoric, imagine the impact of not properly educating our younger generation.
Holocaust education is something which, based in good intentions, is often contentious in practice. As I reflect on Yom Hashoah, it is important to point out issues plaguing Holocaust education and how these affect how we teach the histories of the Holocaust and modern genocide to America’s youth.
First, there is a question of content: Do we focus on both the Holocaust and modern genocide? On one hand, the Holocaust is incomparable, and it can be insensitive to try to group Holocaust education with other content on genocide, or to make comparisons between one set of atrocities and another. However, on the other hand, many Holocaust educators believe we have a moral obligation to address the current injustices plaguing the world. This is a serious debate that many scholars and educators in the field struggle with, and is particularly challenging for Holocaust museums and Holocaust remembrance organizations who wish to appropriately and sensitively honor history while remaining relevant to a younger generation and broader audience.
Second, there is an issue of time and resources. Many, if not all, teachers are hard-pressed to find time in their schedules to address the state-required learning standards, let alone to spare additional class time covering what might be deemed supplementary content, such as the Holocaust. Even in the case when Holocaust education is mandated or part of an already existing learning standard, most teachers only have a day or two to teach material about the Holocaust.
In Virginia, for example, several middle and high school state learning standards broach the topic of the Holocaust and 20th century genocide, but the curriculum requirements are fairly inadequate and appear briefly in the context of World War II and its impact. Regardless of one’s opinion concerning state-mandated Holocaust education, I believe due to the sensitive nature of the topic and concerns regarding exposure of complex histories to students, it is fair to contend that the content should be highly developed, carefully screened, and contextually and conceptually sound when presented in a classroom.
Third, there is a question of government intervention and regulation. While it is wonderful that some U.S. states have required Holocaust education and the inclusion of certain learning standards relating to Holocaust history and modern genocide, it’s concerning that the curriculum isn’t regulated and that many teachers, noble as their intentions may be, develop lesson plans and curricula based neither in historical accuracy nor in best practices.
That being said, regulation of any kind can also lead to abuses and the espousal of misinformation. This is a complex issue that varies from state to state and is difficult to track. However, there are resources and opportunities available to teachers who wish to receive world-class training in Holocaust education, such as summer teaching institutes and fellowship opportunities at well-respected museums and institutions around the world.
Interning at the Virginia Holocaust Museum has been a wonderful learning experience and I am in awe of its efforts to educate all youth about the Holocaust. Here at the museum, we believe that broad awareness about the Holocaust and modern genocide, as well as appropriate strategies, are essential in educating our students and teachers. The museum is dedicated to extensive community outreach and has taken an active role in civic engagement with its many partnerships and collaborations with local organizations and museums.
Also, my time as a student at the University of Haifa’s Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies Program has been invaluable in my training as an educator and future historian. The wide breadth and prestige of courses available in the fields of history, psychology, education and museum studies, in addition to excellent internship opportunities and mentorship, have widened my perspective and allowed me a space to grow as student and a strong foundation with which to build a career on.
So, how do we improve Holocaust education? Right now, there are more questions than answers. But working at the museum as the visiting education intern and studying at the University of Haifa have provided me with some key insights. Teachers and students across the United States need access to both age-appropriate and content appropriate materials. Students should be engaging with this history in a way that honors and commemorates survivors and one that uses pedagogically-sound teaching methods.
There isn’t one universal way to teach the Holocaust. But the key to successful Holocaust education is training well-rounded educators who are able to adapt to the times and make the right judgment calls in their teaching. Holocaust education requires thinking on your feet and making the past constantly relevant to modern times, all while maintaining a high degree of sensitivity about a topic of such tremendous importance. I don’t have concrete answers to all of the dilemmas, but I will continue the quest for better teaching of this incredibly important subject to Jewish and non-Jewish youth alike.
Hana Green is the visiting education intern at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond and a student at the University of Haifa’s MA program in Holocaust Studies.