Teaching Genocide and Mass Violence

Review of Sarah Donovan’s (2016) Genocide Literature in Middle and Secondary Classrooms: Rhetoric, Witnessing, and Social Action in a Time of Standards and Accountability.

In 2016, Michigan became the newest state to enact legislation to mandate the instruction of genocides for secondary students, specifically citing the Holocaust and Armenian genocide. Michigan joined seven states that have legislative mandates to teach about the Holocaust and genocide in public middle and high schools. Currently, several projects are calling for directives to teach about the Holocaust from all 50 states (e.g. New York’s Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect and The Butterfly Project). more...

Early this week Frank Navarro, a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum trained teacher who has taught at Mountain View High School in California for 40 years, was put on leave after a parent complained about the parallels he was drawing in his world studies class. He was accused of comparing Trump to Hitler, but in actuality he had only pointed out the connections between Trump’s presidential campaign and Hitler’s rise to power.

On September 1 of this year, Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum wrote in the article With gratitude toward Donald Trump, how as an educator, he was grateful to Trump for making it easier for him to explain to his students, how it was possible for the Nazis and Hitler to come to power. In my own classroom, it is my students who have made the connections, as I certainly did not have to spell it out for them.  We all agree that Trump is not Hitler, but certainly the rhetoric and unabashed racism, antisemitism and xenophobia unleashed by his campaign reminds us of the tactics used by Hitler, the Nazis and his followers.

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Memory is a tricky thing. Biased and imperfect, it can be willfully deceitful and innocently forgetful. Collective memory is no different, and is perhaps more problematic in that it is often formed and framed by people and institutions with ulterior motives. Even more importantly, collective memory defines our popular conceptions of history’s meaning.

Popular histories are powerful forces in shaping identity and purpose for all societies. Yet, they rarely do justice to the delicate intricacies of the central questions that the pressing issues of human existence ask of us. Popular history marginalizes some of the most essential questions that we face, and yet, it is often the only history to which many young people are exposed. more...