Commentary Magazine


How They Teach the Holocaust

A scandal erupted in 1988 when the United States Department of Education rejected an application for a $70,000 grant to disseminate Facing History and Ourselves, a privately-produced curriculum to teach junior-high-school students about the Holocaust. It seems that an outside reviewer for the department had criticized the curriculum for failing to present the viewpoints of the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Though the department denied that its decision had been determined by the outside reviewer—or, as the curriculum’s supporters charged, by the negative opinion of the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly—Congressman Ted Weiss (New York) invoked his status as the son of Jewish refugees from Nazism to air the matter before his congressional subcommittee. After hearing testimony from the author of Facing History, who was also the executive director of the foundation distributing it, the subcommittee concluded that “the peer-review process had been subverted by opponents of Holocaust education.”

During the ensuing controversy, in which charges of right-wing conspiracy and anti-Semitic intent were hurled at the Department of Education, the editor of an educational newsletter invited me to write a piece defending Facing History. I never did so, for my own reading of the curriculum persuaded me that the Department of Education had ample reason to turn down the grant application. Putatively a curriculum to teach the Holocaust, Facing History was also a vehicle for instructing thirteen-year-olds in civil disobedience and indoctrinating them with propaganda for nuclear disarmament.

My unexpected finding shocked me and aroused my curiosity. How, in fact, was the history of the murder of the European Jews being handled in secondary schools in the United States? The decentralized nature of the American educational system makes it very difficult to find out in exactly how many districts the subject is taught, what precisely is taught, for how long a period, or with what effect. What we do know is that, for an event of such historical magnitude and moral import, the Holocaust as a subject has yet to earn a full place in secondary-school education.

Of course, history itself is under general beleaguerment in the secondary schools. A 1988 survey by the Bradley Commission found that at least half the students in elementary and secondary schools do not study any world history or Western civilization at all. Today, fewer than twenty states require more than the usual one year of American history for graduation. Instead of history, most schools now offer a subject called “global studies” or “world civilizations,” an omnium-gatherum of pop anthropology, sociology, geography, history, and art appreciation, characterized by one historian as a “globe-trotting survey of dozens of societies on every continent.”

History is also being squeezed out to make room for subject matter demanded by special-interest groups. Blacks have called for teaching about the role of blacks in American history and culture, and Hispanics, Native Americans, and women have followed suit, giving rise to what has irreverently been labeled “oppression studies.” The original psychological rationale for these studies—that they would foster pupils’ self-esteem—has now been superseded by an ideological rationale which preaches the equality of all cultures and attacks the “hegemony” of Western civilization and its “Eurocentric” character. In either case, the time and space that could be devoted to studying the murder of the European Jews shrink even more. And lobbying efforts by Holocaust survivors, which intentionally or not often reinforce the impression that the Holocaust is nothing more than the Jewish branch of oppression studies, cannot always compete with other more fashionable or better organized “causes.”

There has also been outright opposition to teaching about the murder of the European Jews. Back in 1977, when the New York City Board of Education introduced its own curriculum for a mandatory unit called The Holocaust: A Study of Genocide, M.T. Mehdi, head of the American Arab Relations Committee, decried it as “an attempt by the Zionists to use the city educational system for their evil propaganda purposes.” The president of the German-American Committee for Greater New York said, “it creates a bad atmosphere toward German-Americans in this country” and added that “there is no real proof that the Holocaust actually did happen.” The New York Association of Black Educators objected on the grounds that the topic was irrelevant to black students. In Philadelphia, where preparations were under way to introduce a similar course, a Lutheran minister worried that the schools were not teaching other instances of genocide; besides, the Holocaust curriculum made it appear “that genocide was a Teutonic phenomenon.” Early this year, parents of a student in a suburban Chicago junior high school protested against such instruction on the ground that the Holocaust was a “myth.”

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Still, despite indifference and opposition, the history of the murder of the European Jews is gradually being given some place in the secondary-school curriculum. As far as I have been able to ascertain, it is now incorporated in the “Global Studies” and/or “World Cultures” courses of at least seven state education departments (California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania), and in the curricula of many large-city boards of education (Atlanta, Baltimore, Des Moines, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh) and of many dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of local boards, mostly in suburban communities of large cities. Studied in the context of totalitarianism in Europe (Nazism, fascism, and Communism) and of World War II, and sometimes also as part of the American-history curriculum for the period, the subject is commonly offered in grade ten (age 15), occasionally in grade eleven. Some schools teach the subject as early as middle-school grades eight and nine (ages 13 and 14).

The teaching unit ranges from two to ten periods, or longer if student interest warrants. In New York State, where instruction is mandatory, the Regents high-school examinations in Global Studies (formerly Social Studies) and in American History, which students are required to pass for graduation, regularly include one question on the subject.

Most school boards or departments of education produce their own curricula, which develop material briefly sketched in world-history textbooks. (These days the textbooks adopted by major school systems usually contain a couple of pages about the Holocaust, though the information may not always be coherent or even correct.) Course outlines are organized into teaching units, supplemented with teaching aids, and fleshed out with reading materials consisting largely of bowdlerized borrowings from books, magazines, and newspapers. Curricula produced for use in individual schools are usually little more than a batch of mimeographed pages stapled together, while big-city or statewide curricula are more elaborate products of committees, consultants, review boards, graphic designers, and printing presses.1

School districts sometimes provide training programs to familiarize their teachers with the new course material. Schools and teachers can also avail themselves of outside resources. Social Studies School Service, a commercial company, distributes a “World History” catalogue with five pages of listings of books and videocassettes on Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust, and genocide—twice as many as those on the French Revolution. The company also issues a 32-page catalogue, Teaching the Holocaust: Resources and Materials, a macabre cornucopia of books at all grade levels, curricula, teaching guides, atlases, charts, videocassettes, sound filmstrips, photo aids, posters, simulation games, crossword puzzles, cartoon assignments, and quizzes.

Teachers can also make use of Jewish institutional resources. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington, there are no fewer than 19 Holocaust museums in the United States, 48 resource centers, 34 archival facilities, 12 memorials, and 26 research institutes.

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The 25 curricula I have examined undertake to do two things: first, to give pupils basic information and, second, to provide appropriate moral education. They are better at the first task than at the second, and better at describing what happened than explaining why it happened.

Most curricula plunge right into the story of Hitler’s Germany; a few provide some background on the Weimar Republic, presumably to explain Hitler’s rise to power. Though all curricula discuss Nazi anti-Semitism, preferring generic terms like “racism” and “prejudice” instead of the specific “anti-Semitism,” 15 of the 25 never even suggest that anti-Semitism had a history before Hitler. Of those that do, barely a handful present coherent historical accounts, however brief.

A small number of curricula include lessons which survey the pre-Nazi history of Jews in Europe, presumably to humanize the image of the Jews depicted in Nazi propaganda. In schools with a considerable Jewish population, these lessons may function also as homage to a destroyed community and culture.

Some readings, like those in the New York State curriculum, are informative and stimulating. Others, like the New Jersey Student Anthology, are overloaded with junk items from popular culture. With few exceptions, the English language is mutilated in most curricula and errors turn up everywhere—errors grammatical as well as typographical, misspellings of names, wrong titles, sloppy mistakes—which reflect prevailing educational standards.

Nor are errors of basic fact and interpretation all that uncommon. Thus, the California History-Social Science Framework seeks “to engage students in thinking about why one of the world’s most civilized nations participated in the systematic murder of millions of innocent people, mainly because of their religious identity.” One would have thought that by now educators would know the Nazis determined who was a Jew not by religion, but by the spurious criterion of “race.” A more egregious distortion of fact appears in the New York City Board of Education curriculum, The Holocaust, of 1988 (not the same as the more substantial curriculum which the Board issued in 1979). Two short excerpts from Hitler’s Mein Kampf are presented “to show that racist hatred extends to all groups that are ‘others.’ ” The first sets forth Hitler’s ideas on the mental inferiority of blacks, but omits from the quoted passage a key sentence in which Hitler asserts that only Jews regard blacks as equals of whites. The second excerpt is one of Hitler’s more benign statements about the Jews—that they lack their own culture. The curriculum thereby makes a travesty of Hitler’s views, creating the impression that blacks and not Jews were his primary targets.

A grave error of omission occurs in those curricula which include a lesson on “World Responses” or “Resistance, Rescue, and Intervention,” where the United States is routinely charged with indifference to the fate of the Jews during the war or accused of “doing nothing” to help them. These curricula never mention that the United States committed enormous resources of men and material to fight the Germans, and that only the American military presence made possible the defeat and collapse of the Nazi dictatorship. No curriculum cites the belief of U.S. government and military officials that the only way to stop the murder of the Jews was to defeat Hitler on the battlefield. Nor does any curriculum connect the inability of the Allies to accomplish that task sooner with the rapid disarmament of the 1920′s and 1930′s. By such omissions, these curricula fail properly to place the events of the Holocaust in the context of World War II.

As for the teaching of moral lessons, all the curricula come to pretty much the same general conclusion, with the variations among them apparent only in their rhetoric. Santayana’s words, that “[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” are widely quoted, or misquoted. A cruder version of the same idea turns up as: “So that it will never happen again.” Most curricula also aim (in the words of one) “to teach students the inevitable consequences of hatred, prejudice, bigotry, and scapegoating.” They try to instill respect for racial, religious, and cultural differences, and to foster a commitment to democratic values. A bare handful discuss the sanctity of human life (the Michigan/Bolkosky curriculum is a heartening example). Most focus on “individual responsibility” as against “obedience to authority” as keys to moral behavior.

Besides lectures, readings, films, and discussions, most of the curricula use simulation games and/or role-playing to teach their moral lessons. Students play Gestapo, concentration camp, and Nuremberg Trial. They act out the roles of murderers, victims, judges. These exercises have been known to produce unprecedented emotional tensions in the classroom, among some students arousing fear, panic, and overidentification with Jewish victims and, among others, releasing sadomasochistic urges, violent responses, and overidentification with the murderers.

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The testimony of classroom experience is too fragmentary and subjective to allow judgments about how any particular curriculum translates into effective classroom teaching. But the texts themselves reveal their shortcomings. Though most recite the facts, they do not stress the centrality of premeditated mass murder as an instrument of policy. But the more serious failure, to which I have already alluded, is the omission of the history of anti-Semitism—and especially its roots in Christian doctrine—as necessary background to the murder of the European Jews. To be sure, Christianity cannot be held responsible for Hitler, but the Nazis would not have succeeded in disseminating their brand of racist anti-Semitism had they not been confident of the pervasiveness, firmness, and durability of Christian hatred of Jews. Anti-Semitism, in the words of the late Ben Halpern, is “the name of a cumulative tradition of hostility.”

Trying to teach adolescents about the roots of anti-Semitism in Christianity, however, even in the secular schools of a secular state, is like leading a tourist party across crocodile territory. How do teachers who may themselves be believing Christians explain this history to children from observant Christian homes? How will parents react when their children tell them what they have learned about Christian persecution of the Jews? Clearly a desire not to offend is the reason most curricula detour around the subject. The Pennsylvania/Grobman curriculum, which does include an excellent lesson on the history of Christian anti-Semitism, cautions that “some students (and some teachers as well) may have difficulty accepting the injustices which have occurred during the centuries in the name of religion, particularly if that religion is their own.” The New Jersey curriculum takes the problem directly into the classroom for discussion: “Many people feel that a crucial part of growth is our response to uncomfortable new knowledge about things we cherish. How do you respond to the charge that organized Christianity might have played a major role in the historic mistreatment of Jews?”

Is it at all possible to improve instruction on this painful subject? In the first two decades after the war, Catholics and Protestants alike, horrorstruck and guilt-ridden by the terrible evidence of the murder of the six million, acknowledged that their church teachings had provided the bedrock of anti-Semitism. Some institutions took steps to excise what Jews called the “doctrine of contempt” in church teachings. Liberal Protestant groups renounced proselytism and accepted Judaism as an equal sister religion. But the most dramatic and radical breakthrough came when the Catholic Church, after a long and bitter debate during the Second Vatican Council in the years 1962-65, removed the charge of “deicide” from ancient and modern Jews. In those days there was also much discussion about revising the textbooks used in Catholic parochial and Protestant denominational schools.

Now, more than a generation later, it appears that those post-World War II teachings have not filtered down with equal effectiveness to local churches and parishes. The fundamental question still remains of whether it is at all possible to eradicate anti-Semitism from Christian teaching without, as the radical theologian Rosemary Ruether has written, “destroying the whole structure.” In any case, Christian remorse over the murder of European Jews has long since dissipated. Not only is the old hatred of the Jews still to be found in fundamental Christian texts, but new layers of anti-Semitism have accreted, as hatred of Jews now disguises itself in anti-Zionist rhetoric and anti-Israel propaganda. These days liberal Christians rarely respond to expressions of anti-Semitism, no matter how irrational or ugly.

One wonders whether any Christian educators, scholars, and theologians would be willing to try to solve this problem. It would be a daunting task to create a teaching guide for a short series of lessons about the history of Christian anti-Semitism for use in a Holocaust curriculum and to do so without suppressing the facts, without hypocrisy, and yet preserving the integrity of Christian faith and its doctrines.

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Omitting all references to Christian anti-Semitism is one way some curricula avoid the sensitivities of the subject. The more acceptable and common pedagogic strategy is to generalize the highly particular nature and history of anti-Semitism by subsuming (and camouflaging) it under general rubrics like scapegoating, prejudice, and bigotry. (As Sir Francis Bacon noted nearly 400 years ago, “the spacious liberty of generalities” has always been more appealing than “the inclosures of particularity.”)

The concept of scapegoating is easy to transmit. Every child is familiar with the experience, whether as victim or as victimizer, and knows how easy it is to heap blame on an innocent and helpless creature for whatever has gone wrong. A variation on the scapegoat theory appears in Facing History, which explains that “hatred of Jews invariably reflects larger crises in society which directly affect the lives of all,” and that “the resurgence of anti-Semitism points to a resurgence of other forms of intolerance and hatred.” These abstract words suggest that hatred of the Jews is not a thing in itself, but a symptom of “larger” troubles, though no explanation is given as to why the Jews, rather than dervishes, for instance, are consistently chosen as the scapegoat.

The curricula similarly resort to the concept of prejudice, a generic term for hostile prejudgments of people and groups. Some curricula, determined to teach the irrationality of prejudice, even invent the notion of arbitrary prejudice, directed, for example, against left-handed or red-haired people. A common classroom activity involves singling out children with specific characteristics like blue eyes or long hair and then having the whole class act out nasty forms of prejudiced behavior against them. The trouble with this kind of universalization is that it once again ignores the particular religious and historical roots that nurture specific prejudices. It certainly does not explain the distinctive character and history of anti-Semitism.

In studying prejudice or any other generic substitute for anti-Semitism, most curricula focus on individual attitudes, beliefs, and opinions rather than their embodiment in public policy and law. This approach conceives of prejudice as a psychological or mental-health problem, a disease that can be cured: if only every bigot could be put on the analyst’s couch, prejudice would be eliminated from society. The failure to distinguish between individual behavior and state policies may be attributable to the relatively benign American experience of anti-Semitism, which, with few exceptions, has been a history of individual prejudices expressed through words and acts in the private sector of society. Yet anti-Semitism as public policy is an essential aspect of what the Holocaust was about, and it too has a history. Whenever anti-Semitism has become the instrument of authority, and been incorporated in the very structure of government, Jews have been deprived of their rights, their property, and ultimately their lives. It happened when the medieval Church agitated the faithful against Jews during the Crusades; it happened when modern European nation-states denied Jews their equal rights and citizenship; it manifested itself in the anti-Semitic goals and platforms of political parties in 19th- and 20th-century European countries and in the enactment of anti-Jewish legislation.

Curricula commonly ask their student whether “it” could happen here and even give their own answer: yes, it could happen here. But these curricula do not instruct their students in the fundamental differences between, on the one side, our pluralist democracy and constitutional government, ruled by law, and, on the other side, the authoritarian or totalitarian governments of Europe that legitimated discrimination against and persecution of Jews. One wonders whether students learn about those fundamental differences anywhere in their high-school education

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There is still another way of deemphasizing the role of anti-Semitism in the murder of the Jews—by categorizing this particular crime as an act of genocide, a crime which can be committed against any people, nation, or race. Both the concept and the word (combining the Greek genos, meaning “race” or “descent,” and a Latin suffix, meaning “kill” or “slay”) were invented by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, most of whose family was murdered in Warsaw by the Germans during the war. Lemkin wanted the word to become a generic term that would define a crime in international law, and indeed as such it was encoded in the Genocide Convention which the United Nations adopted in 1949.

The concept of genocide—an act “committed with intent to destroy . . . a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”—has since become widely debased, and today groups of all sorts clamor for recognition as victims of genocide. Browsing among the curricula, I found few setting any qualifications for eligibility. Thus, the Cleveland Heights, Ohio, World History curriculum enumerates as victims “of 20th-century genocide . . . the Ibos, the Armenians, and the Indonesian Chinese.” The New Jersey curriculum encourages students “to probe the concept of genocide,” and cites as one historical example “the plight of the contemporary ‘boat people.’ ” The authors of the Connecticut curriculum, altogether altering the original meaning, define genocide as “all official actions to harm, in whole or in part, various types of human groups” (emphasis added). According to the Connecticut curriculum, victims of genocide include North American Indians, South and Central American Indians, and the aboriginal peoples in Australia. This curriculum, which bears the imprimatur of the state’s Commissioner of Education, also accuses “Americans” of having committed genocide, asserting that the American “army sometimes deliberately spread smallpox” among the Indians.

These far-fetched instances surely reflect in some cases the attitudes of the “hate-America” crowd, but they are used also as a pedagogical device. By enumerating supposedly analogous cases, the curricula can make the issue “relevant” by deflecting attention from the Jews as the sole or most prominent victims of genocide. The New York City curriculum of 1979, for instance, copes with the problem by having it both ways. In an early chapter it lists, in addition to the murder of the Jews, four other examples of imputed genocide: (1) the treatment of American Indians; (2) the treatment of blacks during the slave era in the United States; (3) the slaughter and deportations of the Armenian people by the Turks; and (4) the reported murders of tens of thousands of Ugandans who opposed Idi Amin’s dictatorship during the 1970′s. Then in a later chapter the authors reverse themselves and at last make a crucial distinction: “While there have been many instances of genocide . . . , the total annihilation of a people was not an officially sanctioned purpose of a national government as it was in Nazi Germany.” By this standard, only the slaughter of the Armenians possibly qualifies as an example of genocide comparable to the Holocaust.

Besides accumulating such imprecise and often tendentious analogies, some curricula enlarge the list of victims of Nazi genocide to include those whom the Nazis never intended to wipe out. The Pennsylvania/Grobman curriculum is one of several which instance homosexuals and members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, though there is no historical evidence that the Nazis ever planned to exterminate these as groups. To be sure, the Nazis put homosexuals in concentration camps and identified them with pink triangles, proposing to “reeducate” them to function in “normal” society. And Jehovah’s Witnesses (Bibelforscher in Germany), who refused to recognize the authority of the Nazi state, were likewise sent to concentration camps (and identified by purple triangles) for a term limited to two months. Both groups were incarcerated together with other categories of prisoners whom the Germans did not intend to murder: criminals (green triangle); anti-socials—beggars, vagrants, prostitutes, and the like (black triangle); and political prisoners (red triangle). Many of these inmates, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals, unable to withstand the hardships of forced labor, became ill and died for lack of medical care. Moreover, as the war progressed, the camp regimen became ever more brutal, and non-Jewish inmates too weak or ill to work were routinely sent to their deaths. But none of this was part of a Nazi program to eliminate the group in question.

The lack of precision in the curricula may reflect the imprecision in the text of the Genocide Convention itself. Though it was designed to prevent and punish the crime of murder of a whole people, such as was committed against the Jews, the Convention does not once use the word “murder.” “Killing” is the operative word. Nor is the word “murder” used with much frequency in the curricula. The more commonly invoked words tend to be abstractions—destruction, annihilation, extermination, and, of course, genocide. Though many curricula include a lesson on the Nuremberg trials in which they discuss crimes against humanity, they hardly ever discuss the crime of murder. Why?

Since the beginning of time, murder with malice aforethought has been outlawed and punished by every people and state, damned by every religion, forever unredeemed and unredeemable. Yet despite the clear understandings handed down from ancient cultures and incorporated in modern law, many people today embrace a relativistic attitude toward murder. Some denounce capital punishment for the crime of murder as if the penalty itself were murder. Others insist that instead of rushing to condemn we should seek out the “root causes” in our social system that lead murderers to commit their crimes. It seems to follow, then, that we should convict “society” instead. This moral climate may account for a serious lapse in most Holocaust curricula—the failure to impart any moral lesson about the specific crime of murder, in this case mass murder.

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As for the moral lessons in which the Holocaust curricula do abound, these are often inappropriate to the subject.

A few curricula offer exercises in outright political indoctrination in currently fashionable causes. Thus, the New Jersey Student Anthology ingeniously applies the history of the Holocaust to “the American civil-rights movement and other social-action groups” and, going even further afield, to “the experiences of Maryknolls in El Salvador,” all of which “raise old questions about how we should respond to new oppression.” Needless to say, the curriculum does not spell out just how the history of the Holocaust applies to these movements.

In the Pennsylvania/Grobman curriculum, a lesson entitled “Nazi Fascism and the Modern Totalitarian State” assigns the students to “research the value of war toys sold annually in the United States” and to “discuss if this says anything about our culture.” Another activity in the same lesson asks students to find out if there are local facilities “which provide land for ‘war games.’ ” These classroom activities reflect the influence of the “peace-education” movement which successfully penetrated the school curriculum in the 1980′s.2

The most blatant example of that influence appears in Facing History‘s last chapter, “Facing Today and the Future.” Claiming that “continued adult denial of the information regarding potential nuclear annihilation is harmful to our students,” Facing History finds a parallel between the Holocaust and a “potential nuclear holocaust” in that “the explanations educators give for perpetuating the silence about nuclear issues are the same as those given for avoiding a confrontation with the Holocaust.” At chapter’s end, the authors disclose their activist agenda by offering to make available to teachers and students a list of groups dealing with “issues of the nuclear world of today.”

But the lesson most frequently taught by these curricula is political in a more indirect way. It centers on the theme of moral choice, the obligation of each person to be responsible for his own actions. Usually the curricula pose the problem in either/or terms: conforming (which is immoral) or resisting (moral), obeying authority (bad) or following the dictates of one’s conscience (good). The standard examples are two famous court cases in which the defendant invoked “superior orders”: Adolf Eichmann at his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 and Lt. William L. Called at his court-martial for having shot to death unarmed Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968.

In citing the “superior-orders” defense, however, the curricula erect a man of straw. This defense was specifically repudiated in Article 8 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal of August 8, 1945, which the Allied governments created to try the major Nazi war criminals. Rejected in international law, it was denied at both Eichmann’s and Galley’s trials. The curricula which refer to those cases have confused the discredited legal argument of obedience to superior orders with the concept of obedience as a trait of character. Eichmann claimed he was merely an obedient officer performing his duty, and the authors of Facing History take him at his word, believing, along with Hannah Arendt, that he was a faceless example of the “banality of evil.” But Eichmann was in fact a fanatically committed Nazi, zealous in pursuit of Nazi goals, and enterprising in facilitating the murder of the Jews.

The longest chapter in Facing History, “Preparing for Obedience,” which undertakes to teach its students that obedience and conformity are not morally admirable qualities, opens with the ominous statement that “obedience is one of the critical ingredients of a totalitarian society.” But as anyone knows who has studied totalitarian societies, the critical ingredient of these societies is not obedience, but terror. It is terror that elicits obedience under duress, even to unjust laws.

According to a study guide for a film which Facing History and many other curricula include in their course, “[o]bedience to the law is not necessarily the determinant of a moral person.” That message of moral relativism has reached the students using the curriculum; in the diary in which they are required to enter their reactions one of them wrote, “From the course I’ve learned that there is not just one right and one wrong answer.” This is a message that might have been useful to students in prewar Germany, the most flagrantly authoritarian society in all the West. But do American children, who have been raised in unprecedented freedom and permissiveness, need to be instructed in the virtues of disobedience?

Some curricula teach, that following one’s “conscience” is morally superior to obeying one’s parent or the just laws of society. None recommends that students read Plato’s Crito, where they might come upon Socrates’ refusal to accept his friends’ plan to organize his escape from prison: “Do you imagine that a city can continue to exist and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force, but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?” Nor does any curriculum question the reliability of conscience as a guide to distinguishing between good and bad, right and wrong. The voice of conscience may sometimes sound loud and clear, but not necessarily at all times and under all circumstances. Furthermore, the consciences of different people within the same society or in different societies vary widely.

Conscience can be especially unreliable when it comes to moral questions which we have never before faced or imagined and for which we lack the wisdom to choose an honorable course of action. The Jews who lived under Hitler’s rule were confronted with cruel dilemmas, forced to make difficult, even impossible, choices about matters of life and death for which conscience could offer no direction and the past could give no guidance. Yet many high-school curricula frivolously suggest role-playing exercises in which students imagine how they would behave if confronted with such dilemmas. What kind of answers can come from American children who think of the Gestapo as the name of a game?

If conscience is not a satisfactory guide to moral behavior in times of duress, and if one is compelled to live in a society with unjust laws, by what standard then should people be guided? My own answer is simple: we turn to a more authoritative law, to the fundamental moral code of our civilization and of the three great religions whose basic text is the Jewish Bible. We turn to the Sixth Commandment, which prescribes: “Thou shalt not murder.” This, in my view, is the primary lesson of the Holocaust.

In the public schools, teaching moral standards as they are incorporated in the Ten Commandments (or even in just one commandment) would, so I am told, constitute a violation of the doctrine of the separation of church and state. If that is so, something is clearly wrong with both our system of education and our standards of morality.

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The failure of American schools to teach effectively has become a national scandal. Surveys and studies continue to report that large numbers of pupils cannot read well enough to comprehend a simple text, that they cannot write a straight sentence, perform everyday arithmetical tasks, locate a foreign country on a map. Yet the unending flow of criticism does not mean that we should abandon the entire educational enterprise. Similarly, this disheartening survey of secondary-school Holocaust curricula is not intended to undermine the legitimacy of teaching about the murder of the European Jews. Of the curricula currently in use, two, each quite different in its treatment—Michigan/Bolkosky’s A Holocaust Curriculum: Life Unworthy of Life and New York State’s Teaching About the Holocaust and Genocide—are excellent. They, at least, can serve as the basis for reconsidering how this thorny subject can be taught with integrity and without political exploitation.

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Note

The following list of curricula is arranged by states, but includes a separate listing for New York City. Staff members of the Anti-Defamation League helped me obtain some; others, collected by the Jewish Education Service of North America, are available at the Library of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.

California: (1) California State Board of Education, Model Curriculum for Human Rights and Genocide (1988, 66 pp., printed). Sections of this curriculum have been excerpted from the Connecticut State Department of Education curriculum, Human Rights: The Struggle for Freedom, Dignity, and Equality. (2) California State Board of Education, History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve (1988, 122 pp., printed) places the teaching of the Holocaust within grade ten. (3) Los Angeles Unified School District, Instructional Planning Division, The Holocaust: An Instructional Guide (1979, 67 pp.).

Connecticut: State of Connecticut, Department of Education, Human Rights: The Struggle for Freedom, Dignity, and Equality (1987, 90 pp.).

Georgia: Fulton County (Atlanta): (1) Riverwood High School, Holocaust and Human Rights (1989, 55 pp., processed). (2) Northside High School, Study Unit on the Holocaust (nd, 16 pp., processed), for grade seven.

Illinois: (1) Champaign Community Unit School District #4, Middle School Holocaust Curriculum (January 1990, 28 pp., processed), for grade eight. (2) Board of Education of the City of Chicago, The Holocaust: A Teacher Resource Unit: Grade 8 (1990, 68 pp., processed). (3) Evanston, Teachers’ Guide to the Holocaust (1977, 38 pp., processed).

Iowa: Des Moines Independent Community School District and the Community Relations Commission of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, A Study of the Holocaust (2nd ed., 1984, processed); 2 vols.: Teacher Guide (19 pp.), Student Handbook (58 + 41 pp.).

Maryland: Baltimore, Baltimore City Public Schools, Office of Social Studies, The Holocaust (1979, 116 pp., processed).

Massachusetts: Margot Stern Strom and William S. Parsons, Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior (Watertown, Mass.: Intentional Educations, 1982, 400 pp., printed, ill.). An eight-to-ten-week unit, for grades eight or nine. Privately produced for sale, nationally distributed.

Michigan: Sidney M. Bolkosky, Betty Rotberg Ellias, David Harris, A Holocaust Curriculum: Life Unworthy of Life: An 18-Lesson Instructional Unit (Farmington Hills, Mich., The Center for the Study of the Child, 1987). Consists of: Instructor’s Manual (216 pp., printed, ill.), Student Textbook (318 pp., printed, ill., in looseleaf binder), and a 60-minute videotape of interviews with Holocaust survivors, boxed. Privately produced for sale, nationally distributed.

New Jersey: Richard F. Flaim and Edwin W. Reynolds, Jr., eds., The Holocaust and Genocide: A Search for Conscience: A Curriculum Guide (Vineland, N.J., Board of Education and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 1983, 183 pp., processed). A six-unit curriculum. A companion volume, Harry Furman, ed., subtitled A Student Anthology (217 pp.), was “developed under the auspices of the State of New Jersey Department of Education.” Both volumes bear the imprimatur of New Jersey’s then Governor, Thomas H. Kean. Teaneck High School uses these materials in grade nine “World History” and “World Cultures Program.”

New York State: The University of the State of New York, the State Education Department Bureau of Curriculum Development, Teaching About the Holocaust and Genocide: The Human Rights Series (1985-86, 3 vols., 66 pp., 323 pp., 166 pp., printed). A two-week course of study.

New York City: (1) Board of Education of the City of New York, Division of Curriculum and Instruction, The Holocaust: A Study of Genocide (1979, reprinted 1985, 587 pp., printed). May be used as a unit of two to five weeks and also for longer units and elective courses. (2) New York City Board of Education, Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Social Studies Unit, The Holocaust (1988, 66 pp., processed). A two-week unit. (3) Ira Zornberg, Classroom Strategies for Teaching About the Holocaust: 10 Lessons for Classroom Use (1983, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 91 pp., processed). Nationally distributed. (4) Karen Shawn, The End of Innocence: Anne Frank and the Holocaust (1989, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 102 pp., ill., printed). Nationally distributed. A five-lesson unit.

Ohio: (1) Leatrice B. Rabinsky and Carol Danks, eds., The Holocaust: Prejudice Unleashed (1989, State of Ohio, Materials and Curriculum Committee of the Ohio Council on Holocaust Education, printed, ill., nine individually paged and bound booklets assembled in a looseleaf binder and boxed). A ten-lesson unit. (2) Board of Education, Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, Modern World History (1979, 39 pp., processed). Includes an optional unit on the Holocaust.

Pennsylvania: (1) Gary Grobman, The Holocaust: A Guide for Pennsylvania Teachers (Harrisburg, Pa.: The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, 1990, 166 pp., printed). The Pennsylvania Department of Education has approved this curriculum for distribution free of charge to each school district in the state. (2) Philadelphia, Instructional Series of the School District of Philadelphia, The Holocaust: A Teacher Resource (1977, 129 pp., printed). (3) Mt. Lebanon (Pittsburgh) School District, nine untitled pages on teaching the Holocaust in required social-studies courses, grades seven, ten, eleven (1988, processed). (4) Upper St. Clair (Pittsburgh) Public Schools, a two-to-three-week unit in a social-studies course, “World War II and Holocaust” (nd, processed).


Footnotes

1 As a basis for this article I have collected 25 curricula, itemized in a Note beginning on p. 31.

2 See André Ryerson, “The Scandal of ‘Peace Education,’ ” COMMENTARY, June 1986.

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