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.

In this survey, Echoes & Reflection surveyed 1,500 students at four-year American colleges. They found that students who received Holocaust education not only knew more about the Holocaust, but they were also more tolerant of people of different races and sexual orientations than those who did not receive such education. Furthermore, students who had received Holocaust education were 50% more likely to offer help when presented with a bullying scenario.

Smith demonstates that Holocaust education is not solely based on the reguritiation of historical facts, but attitudinal changes regarding tolerance, diversity, and bystander intervention. If this one of key outcomes of Holocaust education, Echoes & Reflections’ recent survey may in fact demonstrate its effectiveness of Holocaust. Although historical facts about the Holocaust are not be easily recalled by American college students, the lessons regarding the danger of hatred and importance of tolerance seem to resonate with students.

So while children may learn about historical dates, the causes and consequences of WWII, and the definition of genocide; being able to recount the historical narrative of the Holocaust may not be the primary goal of Holocaust education — despite its importance. These findings give us many things to consider moving forward. Perhaps the greatest question is: what is the purpose of Holocaust education? 

In my studies of post-violence history education, I find that there are many purposes of history education. But perhaps the most oft cited reason is to prevent future violence. Today, 75 years after WWII, Holocaust education focuses on eradicating anti-semitism, humanizing the victims of genocidal violence, and fostering the understanding that violence is preventable.

Over the years, education has proven to be a key agent of socialization, having the ability to promote peace and/or violence. More specifically, schools can be sites of physical violence. For example, schools were a common site of genocidal violence during the Rwandan Genocide and Canadian residential schools were a key instrument of what Canada has now labeled cultural genocide. Aside from being a site of physical violence, schools can also foster structural violence (or inequality). In the years leading up to the Holocaust, Jews were banned from schools, and education was systematically withheld from Jews and other marginalized populations. Furthermore, education can also be used to spread hateful and divisive rhetoric, such was the anti-semitic indoctrination that occurred in German schools. 

Therefore, given education’s key role in promoting genocidal ideology, we must seriously consider how schools can be used to promote peace and tolerance and continue to be mindful of the many ways schools have the potential to prime citizens for future violence.

In both my research and teacher trainings on Holocaust education, I’ve noticed a common desire to humanize victims of genocide. As we know, victims and survivors of genocide, are often dehumanized by their perpetrators in efforts to justify the violence committed against them. Thus, genocide education often prioritizes humanizing these individuals — an incredibly important task. 

Yet, as teachers and educational programs seek to humanize victims and survivors, they often dehumanize perpetrators. Perpetrators are seen as inhuman and evil, and their violent acts are the only qualities discussed. I ask you to consider, however, that if the purpose of genocide education is prevention, mustn’t we humanize perpetrators as well? 

Holocaust education programs often fail to convey how and why “ordinary” men and women participated. If students believe those who participate in genocide are simply motivated by pure evil, will they ever be able to see the unconscious biases (or stereotypes and attitudes that we hold but may be unaware of) that work alongside violent ideologies?

For example, during a 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, a protestor drove his vehicle through a crowd killing a counter-protestor, and more recently, President Trump has refused to denounce the violent actions and ideologies of the Proud Boys. The individuals who participate in these organizations and violent actions are Americans. They are our neighbors; they are our current or former students. They may sit beside us on public transit or stand behind us in grocery stores. They are “ordinary” people.

If students only see humanity in victims and survivors, can we expect them to acknowledge when their beliefs persecute others? We need to seriously ask ourselves these questions, if we hope to stop Americans from participating in future acts of violence.

Jillian LaBranche is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests broadly include violence, knowledge, collective memory, and comparative methods. Her research seeks to understand how societies that recently experienced large-scale political violence teach about this violence to the next generation.