Teaching Genocide and Mass Violence

Editor’s note: This is the second in our collected statements in response to SF 2442, a bill currently being debated in the Minnesota legislature. If passed, the bill would mandate Holocaust and genocide education in middle and high schools across the state. Please see the earlier post by CHGS Interim Director Joe Eggers for background and context on the bill and Joe’s statement in response. Below is a statement submitted by George D. Dalbo, UMN Ph.D. and High School Social Studies Teacher.

University of Minnesota

Twin Cities Campus

Department of Curriculum and Instruction

College of Education and Human Development

March 20, 2023

Chair Cheryl Youakim

Republican Lead Ron Kresha

Members of the Education Finance Committee;

“Why have we never learned about this before?” This question was asked by a high school junior in my Genocide and Human Rights course just last week as we began learning about the Cambodian Genocide. The student, a second-generation Hmong-American whose family members experienced mass violence and came to the United States as refugees, is often frustrated that, until my course, her education has excluded most of the genocides we are covering in the course. Quite frankly, as her teacher, I am also frustrated and disheartened that most of my students have little knowledge of these events and the broader patterns of genocide. Thus, I am writing to support HF 2685 and Holocaust and genocide education in the State of Minnesota. As both a middle and high school social studies teacher and a scholar in the field of Social Studies Education, I have seen firsthand through my teaching and research the power of Holocaust and genocide education. 


Holocaust and Genocide Education Workshop at The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) recently released the second draft of proposed social studies standards. The draft, part of a mandatory process to review teaching and learning standards every ten years, will not only secure but significantly expand Holocaust and genocide education across the state for years to come. 

The months-delayed second draft follows the release of a controversial first draft in December 2020, which did not mention Holocaust and genocide education. The decision meant not carrying through the three existing references from the current social studies standards, which were adopted in 2011.


The geographic span of the Holocaust was one of the most pivotal elements of the genocide. The extreme lengths that the Nazis took to displace many of their victims demonstrates their dedication to ethnic cleansing, enslavement, and ultimately the eradication of entire societies.

In Professor Sheer Ganor’s course “History of the Holocaust,” students’ final projects were designed with three core goals: to highlight the spatial dimension of the Holocaust, to give students an opportunity to intimately learn individuals’ life stories, and to analyze primary sources and scholarly studies that shed further light on survivors’ stories. 


The following describes how I have explored settler colonialism theory with my secondary social studies students. Like many of my students in a rural south-central Wisconsin community, I am White and from a working-class background. I share my students’ struggles in understanding our place and  identities within the larger landscape of U.S. society. We’ve found that settler colonialism theory helps to complicate and nuance our understanding of the history and present realities of the United States. 


“Weapons collected at the refugee camp in Goma, Zaire. Photograph by Gilles Peress / Magnum” Image originally posted by the New Yorker. Such images capture the scale of violence without depicting the violence itself.

Philip Gourevitch opens his book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, with a quote from Plato:

Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was coming up from the Peiraeus, close to the outer side of the north wall, when he saw some dead bodies lying near the executioner,  and he felt a desire to look at them, and at the same time felt disgust at the thought, and tried to turn aside. For some time he fought with himself and put his hand over his eyes, but in the end the desire got the better of him, and opening his eyes wide with his fingers he ran forward to the bodies, saying, ‘There you are, curse you, have your fill of the lovely spectacle.

Many people desire to make sense of violence, a pursuit that often leads to engagement with violent imagery. However, as Susan Sontag captures in Regarding the Pain of Others, depictions of violence cannot ever replicate its lived experience. While graphic imagery or descriptions of violence may serve to aid in an understanding of violence, they also hold vast destructive potential. In contrast to assumed education benefits, they can also dehumanize or inhibit agency. As such, we are responsible for critically reflecting upon how we engage with this content in our roles as both researchers and educators.


To many, Yiddish is simultaneously “alive” and “dead.” The reality is, of course, much more complicated (and arguably) dire. For one, the extremes surrounding the life and afterlives of Yiddish are hardly unique. What befell Yiddish language and culture during the Holocaust (resulting in the murder of half of the Yiddish speakers worldwide), along with the interwar and postwar legal repression in the Soviet Union and its cultural marginality in Israel and the United States, partially mirrors majority cultures’ attitudes toward minoritized languages in general. 


“Why have we never learned about this before?” This question is repeatedly asked by the high school juniors and seniors in my comparative genocide studies elective course, often with a tone of disbelief and urgency. While all have studied the Holocaust, only a few have learned about the genocides in Armenia and Rwanda, and rarely are students aware of the genocides that took place in German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia), Cambodia, Darfur, or the many other so-called “hidden” genocides that we study. However, they are shocked and often angry when we examine the genocide perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in North America, especially the Dakota and Ojibwe nations in the State of Minnesota; “we should have learned about this before,” students say. As their teacher, I couldn’t agree more. 


Dear Students,

This is my tenth year teaching a Holocaust and genocide course, and I love teaching this class. I know it sounds strange to say I love teaching about genocide, but I do. Though I teach other social studies courses each year, I spend most of my time and energy on this class; I even went back to graduate school to study how and why to teach about genocide. Over the past decade, I’ve read A LOT; traveled to many places like Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda; talked to many survivors (and perpetrators); and conducted research with teachers and students. Despite this, I still have many questions regarding teaching about genocide.


Last month, the results of the “First-Ever 50-State Survey on Holocaust Knowledge of American Millennials and Gen Z” were released. These results were shocking, as they found that 48% of respondents couldn’t name one concentration camp or ghetto that existed during World War II. Furthermore, respondents were unable to identify that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. 

Interestingly, this study depicted Minnesota’s relative success in the area of Holocaust education. It found that 64% of Minnesotans surveyed could name a concentration camp or ghetto, and 75% could identify Auschwitz. Yet, Stephen Smith, UNESCO Chair of Genocide Education, took great issue with this survey, arguing that genocide education is more than being able to identify specific historical facts. While he argues these facts are important, he highlights the findings of another recent survey.


Several years ago, I transitioned my high school Holocaust and genocide studies elective course from an in-person class to a virtual one. At the time, I had many questions and concerns about teaching such difficult subject matter in a virtual environment. While there were certainly challenges, the switch pushed me to examine my teaching praxis more deeply, explore a flipped model of learning, and find new resources and technologies to engage both synchronously and asynchronously. 

While certainly sometimes the technology seems to be more of a barrier and actual physical distance between us seems insurmountable, rich texts, robust discussions, and a common purpose inevitably bridge the gaps and bring us together as a class. In the end, I am always reminded of the resilience of my students and my own resilience as an educator. While April is going to be a difficult month for both students and educators in Minnesota and across the country, I know that we will find a way to adjust and adapt to the new and uncertain times ahead. The outpouring of support I have received from colleagues, families, and friends, gives me tremendous hope and lets me know that I am not alone.