Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

Rethinking how history is taught

Photo by silverhairster via morguefile.com
Photo by silverhairster via morguefile.com

Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. When the United Nations created this day, it called on countries to develop curricula that would not only keep the memory of what happened alive, but would serve as a way to prevent genocide from happening again.

And yet we know genocide still exists. We also know ignorance exists. I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t time to rethink how we teach what we teach so that calls for “Never Again” can actually ring true.

We hear the statistics. Up to a third of Americans and a third of Europeans know little about the Holocaust or don’t believe that six millions Jews were systematically killed. Joachim West wanted people to empathize more and chose historical Holocaust photos from the era to colorize while Marina Amaral used 20 registration photos of prisoners from Auschwitz. Both understand the importance of driving something home. Recent news about Canada’s national archive acquiring a book Hitler owned which offered detailed information about Jews in the United States and Canada may also strike a chord with some North Americans that  “Hey, that could’ve been me.” But these are not systematic ways of teaching.

This issue at hand does not have to do only with Jewish populations decimated during the Holocaust. During World War Two, many non-Jewish lives were taken. Nor does it have to do only with that era. I’ve only recently learned about the horrific slavery and massive genocide perpetrated on the people of the Congo Free State by Belgium’s King Leopold II during the late 1800s. He pillaged the country for its rubber; those who did not meet quotas were brutalized, had body parts removed, were killed. Ultimately, eight to 10 million Congolese were murdered. I do not remember learning about this in school.

A few years ago, I also learned how the Trail of Tears got its name and how the United States’ forced relocation led to between an eighth to half of the native Americans perishing. While I do remember being given a choice of reading two works of fiction in 11th grade American History and choosing Creek Mary’s Blood by Dee Brown which covers the Trail of Tears, I must admit the story didn’t stay with me.

This past year I saw some articles shared on Facebook about the amazing effort Rwanda put into overcoming the aftereffects of the genocide that tore its society apart. I remember the horror when it happened nearly 25 years ago. Hutus slaughtered nearly a million Tutsis in three months’ time. Incomprehensible. And yet the sheer number of comments by people from many corners of the earth who’d never heard of it rattled me. How many others have no idea what the Khmer Rouge regime did in Cambodia in the late 1970s, when they killed over a million people in a state-sponsored genocide? Are these events not taught? And if they are, why aren’t lessons sticking?

Genocide, slavery, refugee crises, persecution and prejudice all tie into the same human elements. People deciding that others matter less than they do. Dehumanization and cruelty. And as I wrote in my very first blog, this stems from insecurity. People label groups to distance themselves and then put them down to make themselves feel bigger. It also has to do with the emphasis schools choose to place on the topics they choose to teach. Dr. Tarece Johnson of the Global Purpose Approach, wants schools to rethink how they teach about European Explorers as well. And she has a point. The Western perspective is not the only one. Its byproducts, too, were often genocide and slavery. Resources and attention are imbalanced.

I was once told in a college literature class that history, especially where war is concerned, is often told by the victor. Is that fair? Is that comprehensive? Will it teach us what we need to know in order to be better citizens of the world? Are multiple perspectives being taught? If the history is non-European, is it taught as thoroughly? If the experience takes place in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, are we paying as much attention to it?

Knowing that people relate more to stories about individuals than to statistics and understanding that children need to be able to put themselves in another’s place in order to truly internalize what they are learning, why don’t educators reconsider how they teach social studies? If history is put into the context of the common threads that lead up to similar events in history, then perhaps they can begin to draw conclusions about what they see around them.

If the way social studies is being taught is still leaving people with an ignorance of history, then how about we organize topics by these human elements and then bring in examples that are global? This approach also drives home that people are people, they are the same no matter where they are. To be able to drive away the thought that many harbor, that “XYZ would never happen to (or be perpetrated by) me/us. It could only happen to those people” is powerful and necessary. Yes, definitely bring in the survivors who can speak to what they went through as children, find the stories from a child’s perspective. But also, give it context. Look at current events, like Syrian Civil War or the plight of the Rohingya. Students could be asked, for example, if it is okay to consider any one group as deserving of persecution? If we were a government, how better could we handle things?

I honestly think that this approach – organizing topics less by chronology or region and more by the human elements that give rise to them, is deserving of exploration from an educational perspective. If we want history to be a part of social studies, then the social aspects of what gives rise to history and what we really, truly ought to be taking away from it needs to be part and parcel.

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Lawn Guyland, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta since returning to the U.S. in 2003. Recently remarried, this Ashkenazi mom of three Mizrahi sons, 26, 23 and 19, splits her time between managing knowledge in corporate America, pursuing a dual masters in public administration and integrated global communications, blogging, relentlessly Facebooking, once-in-a-while veejaying, enjoying the arts and digging out of the post-move carton chaos of her and her husband's melded household.
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