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.
This first draft drew widespread criticism from many fronts. A broad coalition called for the inclusion of ethnic studies; the Sikh community lobbied for the inclusion of Sikhism, and several conservative groups spoke out against the shift away from patriotic and whitewashed narratives of U.S. history. The omission of the Holocaust, in particular, became a rallying cry for the conservative Center for the American Experiment, which, however, made no mention of the omission of other genocides and railed against the expanded coverage of Indigenous history in the draft.
As a high school teacher and Ph.D. candidate in Social Studies Education researching genocide education and working with the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), I lobbied MDE to reinstate and expand Holocaust and genocide studies, while also supporting efforts to include ethnic studies, absent narratives, and Indigenous histories and contemporary realities in the standards. Genocide education is an important component of these and other efforts to expand social justice via education.
Along with CHGS and JCRC, I am heartened to see that the second draft of the standards has included all of my suggestions regarding Holocaust and genocide education, which ensures that Minnesota is in line with many other states expanding their genocide education requirements in recent years. I am also encouraged to see the inclusion of an ethnic studies strand, a focus on absent narratives, and robust coverage of Indigenous peoples in the state’s past and more recent history.
Below is a discussion of how Holocaust and genocide education is framed in the second draft of the standards.
Defining Genocide Education
A careful reader might note that the second draft includes no reference to specific cases of genocide, except the Holocaust and Indigenous genocide. This broader language allows districts, schools, and, importantly, teachers to tailor a study of genocide to meet the needs and desires of their students. For example, an eighth-grade benchmark states: “Examine the Holocaust, genocides, and other cases of mass violence in the 20th and 21st centuries […] and analyze how individuals, groups, and societies around the world have been affected by genocide and mass violence, including communities resettled in Minnesota” (18.104.22.168). Thus, teachers can include in a study of history those cases of genocide that match the lived and community experiences and interests of increasingly diverse students.
Additionally, the draft standards do not define genocide; instead, teachers and students can explore definitions within their classrooms. This opens possibilities for a broader study of what genocide scholar Alexander Hinton termed “hidden genocides.” Hidden genocides are those cases of mass violence that are either, when they are taught, not labeled or discussed as genocide or simply not taught at all. For example, the events and aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, though taught in sixth-grade classrooms, may not be examined through the lens of genocide. While some cases of genocide, such as the Holodomor, are too often not taught about at all in Minnesota classrooms. The broader language of the standards opens up possibilities for an expansive study of genocide.
Scope and Sequence of Holocaust and Genocide Education
The proposed standards will include Holocaust and genocide education in both middle and high school. More importantly, Holocaust and genocide education will be scaffolded and developmentally appropriate. For example, a high school benchmark states: “Evaluate historical narratives about World War II and the Holocaust in the United States and on a global scale” (22.214.171.124US7). This builds on a middle school benchmark, which states: “Outline the causes and conduct of World War II […] and the Holocaust” (126.96.36.199). Here, the scaffolding from a study of the “causes and conduct” of the Holocaust at a younger age results in students being ready and able to “evaluate historical narratives” about the Holocaust on a “global scale” in high school. An additional high school benchmark asks students to “describe the responses of individuals, communities, nations, and the world community to human rights violations, including the Holocaust and genocides” (188.8.131.52WH6). As a result of this careful scaffolding, students will not only study the history of the Holocaust, but they will also examine the Holocaust in the context of world history and analyze how individuals and societies respond to mass violence.
The proposed standards do not include Holocaust and genocide education in the elementary grades. Holocaust and genocide education scholars Simone Schweber and Samuel Totten have each written out against teaching this content to younger children, finding that these lessons necessarily trivialize the history of the Holocaust and genocides and can potentially traumatize students.
Indigenous Genocide and Settler Colonialism
The second draft includes several references to Indigenous genocide in Minnesota and North America and settler colonialism. Beginning in fifth grade, students will “explain how Indigenous nations responded in different ways to settler colonialism” (184.108.40.206) and “analyze how rivalries among European nations and the search for new opportunities led to the exploitation and genocide of indigenous peoples and the theft of indigenous lands (220.127.116.11). Significantly, under the proposed revisions, students will study the “genocide that occurred within the land that is Minnesota today” (18.104.22.168). Such language is a powerful call for truth-telling regarding the history of Minnesota.
While I laud the work of the committee in securing and expanding genocide education in Minnesota for years to come, I also recognize the limitations of the state’s teaching and learning standards. Despite the new language, districts and, especially, classroom teachers acting as curricular gatekeepers will ultimately decide what and how content is taught within their classrooms. Once these standards are finalized (expected in late 2021), the work of supporting educators across the state to implement them begins. CHGS is already working with university and community partners to expand its resources and educational outreach.
Note: MDE is seeking comments from the public on the second draft of the social studies standards through August 16, 2021.
George Dalbo is a Ph.D. candidate in Curriculum and Instruction and Social Studies Education at the University of Minnesota and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. George’s research broadly centers on how the Holocaust, genocide, mass violence, and human rights are taught in K-12 classrooms. George is also a full-time high school social studies teacher in rural south-central Wisconsin. Entering his 16th year of teaching, George has taught every grade from 5th-12th in public, charter, and private schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin and two years in Vienna, Austria.