We’ve all seen the headlines. A significant number of millennials don’t recall hearing of the Holocaust. Over 40% of them (and over 30% of all asked) thought that two million Jews perished, not six.
What does this mean? What can we do?
The lessons of World War II need to be taught more effectively. If broadened to include the sociological and psychological effects of hate, they can be made impactful. How? I remember watching The Wave, which depicted one teacher’s unique way of showing how hate can spread. Such an experiment may not be possible in a year crammed with the geographic, governmental/civic, historical and economic understandings of the Caribbean, Latin America and Canada, Europe and Australia, as the state’s sixth grade curriculum is. In fact, Georgia’s Standards of Excellence for sixth grade social studies includes only one standard relating to the Holocaust. One.
SS6H7 The student will explain conflict and change in Europe to the 21st century.
a. Describe major developments following World War I: the Russian Revolution, the Treaty of Versailles, worldwide depression, and the rise of Nazism.
b. Explain the impact of WWII in terms of the Holocaust, the origins of the Cold War, and the rise of Superpowers.
c. Explain how the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the end of the Cold War and German reunification.
Optional teacher notes give some context and list resources, but are they enough? What could drive a lesson home for sixth graders that hate is wrong, unbridled hate is dangerous, that there was a man who wanted all Jews dead?
The state’s standards for high school World History similarly seems to consider it a list item
SSWH18 The student will demonstrate an understanding of the global political, economic, and social impact of World War II.
a. Describe the major conflicts and outcomes; include Pearl Harbor, El-Alamein, Stalingrad, DDay, Guadalcanal, the Philippines, and the end of the war in Europe and Asia.
b. Identify Nazi ideology, policies, and consequences that led to the Holocaust.
c. Explain the military and diplomatic negotiations between the leaders of Great Britain (Churchill), the Soviet Union (Stalin), and the United States (Roosevelt/Truman) from Teheran to Yalta and Potsdam and the impact on the nations of Eastern Europe.
d. Explain allied Post-World War II policies; include formation of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan for Europe, and MacArthur’s plan for Japan.
Its optional notes are structured differently, but as a lay person, I am not seeing the emphasis I would like to see.
If students aren’t retaining what they are taught does that mean the subject is not getting enough emphasis or that the methods used aren’t sufficient? Is it taught as a part of history, no different than any other event in history? Is the disconnect also a contributing factor to the rise in acts of anti-Semitism happening in schools? If kids do not understand the gravity of what they’re saying, texting or writing on driveways, then instead of carrying out spot education as part of a punishment or teaching moment, perhaps it’s time to consider another way to drive the lessons home. I read the news and stories full of intolerance, bias and hate abound.
Survivors should be brought into all schools to tell their stories, to convey to students what it was like when they were kids and the Nazis rose to power, came for their families, took them away. I believe students who hear these first-hand accounts will be able to connect dots between the Georgia Standard of Excellence and the danger of unrestrained scapegoating, because the message will have been delivered at an individual, personal level, one in which they can picture themselves.
Each year, more and more survivors pass on. They are a rich resource and one whose stories we all need to hear. But let’s start with students. Let children hear what their childhood could’ve been like had they been born in a different place, in a different time. Some students will go home and share with their parents what they heard. Some schools may even decide to invite parents. I brought this up with a friend this week and she suggested that highs school film students be given an assignment to film survivors. Brilliant.
I’ve written about this before – people’s insecurity being the driving force for putting down others so they can puff themselves up. The accompanying dehumanization to make it easier to distance oneself from horrendous acts and opinions.
The need to step away from generalizations and from history standards that don’t provide human emotional context – is clear to me. And not only me – one mom I broached this with conveyed how much of an impact hearing a survivor’s school-time talk made on her. I truly believe that inviting the last remaining survivors to come in and speak could drive the lesson home in such a way that it will transform ignorant hate into hope.