A Holocaust Educator Weighs In

Czech-2013-Theresienstadt-Block_AThis moving and thoughtful guest post is by my colleague Jeffrey Parker, who amongst other accomplishments is a veteran English educator and teacher-fellow with the US Holocaust Museum. The post expresses a view somewhat different from mine, but I cannot say at all that I disagree.   ~ Dina

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I will admit right up front that I cannot comment objectively on this exam prompt. I have an intense passion concerning the Holocaust, human rights and genocide education. I am a teacher-fellow with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I direct a week-long summer institute for high school students and teachers focused on these topics, and I have been teaching about them for more years than I care to count. That being said, my strongest response comes from the simple fact that I am a thinking, breathing, feeling human being and parent.

Simply put, I think the assignment was wrong. Not because it was meaningless or asked the students to formulate an argument concerning a sensitive topic, but because  of what it lacked. From what I have seen and read, there was little to no context provided beforehand – even though California is one of only five states that mandate Holocaust education – and the provided supporting evidence was weak (I’m not sure biblebelievers.org.au counts as a credible, scholarly source, particularly when the site is closely associated with the discredited Institute for Historical Review). This smacks of something that sounded good as a concept but failed miserably in reality. Whether that was a result of ignorance, insensitivity, or carelessness really does not make a difference. We should demand more of our teachers. Misguided, thoughtless education is often worse than no education at all.

I have no problem with the topic though; I teach my students about revisionist history of the Holocaust along with the associated rise in anti-Semitism, and we talk about the thought process, the arguments, the “evidence,” that supports it. It is absolutely essential to critically grapple with contrary views. As part of our two day, in class oral exam at the end of our Holocaust unit, one of the questions we discuss is “How would you respond to a person that denies the reality of the Holocaust? What evidence would you reference to support your view?” An exam bereft of feedback is not the right place for this though. Yes, on the assignment, it directs the students to engage in “academic discussion” of the material for the purpose of note taking. This is not the nuanced feedback of a committed educator that is prepared to guide. An eighth grader, no matter how mature, is not in a position to silently struggle with such a monumentally complex event. While I agree that “the other side” needs to be addressed, this method was inappropriate at best.

A question on an exam such as this trivializes the Holocaust and leaves little room for true education – where is the discussion, the close reading or viewing of survivor testimony, the illustration of the true complexities? Where are the stories of the Jewish partisans, the text of the Nuremberg Laws, the diary of a teenager living in the Lodz ghetto, the photos of the Sonderkommando that were snapped by an individual that was willing to die for the documentation, the words of the men in Reserve Police Battalion 101, the eyewitness accounts of the liberators of Buchenwald? The USHMM, in their “Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust,” urges educators to, “Contextualize the history,” “Translate statistics into people,” and “Make responsible methodological choices.” This exam question did not do this.

It sickened me when a colleague posted this last week. Challenging students to formulate an argument on such a topic – whether climate change, immigration, or the Holocaust – without adequately preparing them or providing appropriate tools is deplorable. As Elie Wiesel said, “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

This test did not forget the dead; it disregarded them and the living children who should hear their testimony.

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Mr. Parker’s opinions are his own and he does not presume to speak on behalf of the USHMM or any group with which he may be affiliated.