Kentucky recently became the eighth state in the nation (joining a small but growing list of states) to mandate Holocaust and genocide education for all middle and secondary students. The Ann Klein and Fred Gross Holocaust Education Act recently passed the Kentucky General Assembly and was signed into law on April 2nd, 2018. The law states: “Every public middle and high school’s curriculum shall include instruction on the Holocaust and other cases of genocide, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, that a court of competent jurisdiction, whether a court in the United States or the International Court of Justice, has determined to have been committed by applying rigorous standards of due process.” While such well-intentioned legislation aims at countering increasing anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world, the bill may well fall short of lawmaker’s intentions in its implementation in classrooms. The legislation makes no provision for supporting the state’s teachers in complying with the law. Further, the law’s language may curb teachers from robust explorations of genocide by limiting permissible case studies.
The impetus for such legislation often rests on the widespread assumption that schools and individual educators are not teaching students about the Holocaust and other genocides. These assumptions are often reinforced by efforts such as Rhonda Fink-Whitman’s popular YouTube video highlighting Pennsylvania students’ lack of knowledge about the Holocaust. The fact remains that no comprehensive studies exist examining Holocaust and genocide education in the United States. The decentralized nature of American schooling, unlike countries such as Germany and Israel, has led to a patchwork of Holocaust and genocide education efforts. Most states include the Holocaust in their state educational standards for social studies or English language arts, yet critics claim that these standards rarely prove sufficient to ensure students learn about the Holocaust. Ironically teachers, who will ultimately be charged with fulfilling Kentucky’s mandate, are absent from the legislation and the conversations around the law.
Ultimately, the Kentucky law, which is being widely praised by legislators and Jewish community organizations, does little to address the gap between such legislative mandates and their implementation in schools. State Representative Lynn Bechler (R) expressed concerns about this gap: “I believe that everybody should know what happened in the Holocaust, the horrors of the Holocaust. I continue to have problems, however, as the session goes on, that we require more, and more and more from our teachers and our schools.” In 2008, the Kentucky legislature passed a bill, which empaneled a commission to create a state Holocaust curriculum. Unfortunately, the results of the commission’s work, little more than a list of resources (some with costs associated), provides few supports for educators as the state moves forward with its mandate. Kentucky, unlike New Jersey (with a robust cache of Holocaust curricula and teacher trainings) or Florida (with a network of Holocaust museums and educational institutions), has few available resources to support schools and individual educators. At issue, isn’t, as Bechler suggests, requiring more from teachers, but requiring more from teachers while failing to make provisions for adequate support.
Further, the Kentucky law, while seeking to expand instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides, might ultimately limit genocide education efforts. The bill restricts instruction to those instances of mass atrocity that meet the provisions of the 1948 United Nations Convention for the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide or other national and international court proceedings. Surely such language is intended to sidestep controversies over the use of the term genocide. However, under such guidelines, educators might well be restricted from using a genocide framework to explore the destruction of Armenians during World War I (acknowledged as a genocide by Kentucky, but not by the United States or the United Nations), current atrocities against the Rohingya, or such efforts to recognize the genocide of Indigenous peoples. The Kentucky law raises serious questions of teacher autonomy to construct lessons to challenge students around such complex issues as genocide.
As a teacher and Ph.D. student in social studies education interested in Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education in U.S. schools, I laud efforts to ensure access to Holocaust and genocide education for students. However, I question the efficacy of the Kentucky legislation without simultaneously attending to increased Holocaust and genocide education in teacher licensure programs, as well as immediate and continuing support for existing teachers via curricular support and robust professional development. Although no such Holocaust education mandate exists within Minnesota, organizations have mounted campaigns to push for mandates in all 50 states. As similar legislation is introduced across the country, I urge lawmakers to avail themselves of the models set forth by states like Michigan and Illinois and carefully consider the implications of narrowly defining genocide. Teachers need adequate support and the freedom to construct lessons to help students grapple the complexities of the Holocaust and other genocides.
George Dalbo is a Ph.D. student in Social Studies Education at the University of Minnesota with research interests in Holocaust, comparative genocide, and human rights education in secondary schools. Previously, he was a middle and high school social studies teacher, having taught every grade from 5th-12th in public, charter, and independent schools in Minnesota, as well as two years at an international school in Vienna, Austria.