The old adage that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it carries renewed significance in light of the reprisal of White nationalism and the escalation of hate crimes in both the United States and abroad.
These disturbing trends speak to the need for providing high-quality education on American slavery and the Holocaust. Understanding these eras means knowing the historical contexts of bigotry, exclusion, and hatred against Black, Jewish, and other populations targeted by White supremacy. When bias and prejudice go unchecked, dehumanizing beliefs about certain populations can proliferate to the point of genocide and enslavement.
Responsibly teaching these difficult histories, however, requires more resources than many schools have. Limited class time and ineffective course materials mean students rarely have the opportunity to study these topics in-depth. Inappropriate pedagogies such as classroom simulations are simplistic at best and trauma-inducing at worst. Traditional textbooks and popular teaching methods trivialize these complex histories rather than encourage students to think critically.
“It’s not enough to decide that kids will just learn about the Holocaust when they get to 10th grade world history or that they’ll just have a two-week unit on slavery when they get to eighth grade,” says Jennifer Rich, EdD, co-director of the Rowan University Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an assistant professor of education.
In her research, she found that some students are “wildly misinformed or not informed at all,” about the Holocaust by the time they get to college, lacking basic knowledge such as in which century it occurred, she says.
“We know that Holocaust education as a whole has not been super successful. There are huge gaps in what kids are learning and […] what they are internalizing,” Rich says, adding that she doesn’t blame teachers. Even those with advanced content knowledge on these subjects may feel unsure how to discuss something so horrific in the classroom, she says.
While there’s not a set standard for when schools should introduce children to these difficult subjects, discussing differences between groups of people from an early age is imperative in helping them understand the concepts of racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia later on. Talking about diversity in race, religion, and family background can make it easier to start discussions “about what happens when the powers that be don’t see those differences [in a positive] way,” Rich says.
Tiffany Mitchell Patterson, PhD, an assistant professor of secondary social studies at West Virginia University, agrees that teaching children about difficult histories should start with broader discussions of human difference and identity. When it comes to slavery education, schools should take “a more holistic view of Black identity and Black experiences before getting into this specific [history],” she says.
“In early grades, students tend to learn a few narratives about slavery and about a few key figures in civil rights and that’s [presented as] the entire scope of Black history,” Patterson says.
This truncated view belittles the importance of African Americans in our nation’s history and confuses young students. Patterson says it isn’t uncommon for her to hear fifth and sixth graders say that “Martin Luther King, Jr. freed the slaves,” for example.
Educators have a responsibility to broaden public awareness of how and why these types of horrific systems flourish, Patterson says. When teaching middle schoolers, she usually begins with a map of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and discussion of how the practice took place in other parts of the world, not just in the U.S. Students learn additional information not typically included in American history books, such as the fact that more enslaved Africans were actually brought to Brazil than to North America.
Honest slavery education necessitates looking at information often glossed over in traditional American history courses. Patterson believes it is imperative that teachers talk with students about the fact that 12 U.S. presidents, for instance, owned enslaved persons. Having honest discussions about this fact helps youth comprehend how seemingly “good” people can perpetuate crimes against humanity when such offenses are seen as socially acceptable, she says.
Patterson’s students read about the life of Oney Judge, an enslaved woman who escaped George Washington’s custody and whom he doggedly sought to recapture. They learn about how John Adams denounced slavery but was not an abolistionist. And they discuss how women like Martha Washington had the power to “own” other human beings, though women at the time were themselves subjugated to a strict gender hierarchy.
“I put the onus on students to think about these [contradictions]. By giving them this responsibility and treating them as intellectual young people, they’re able to actually grapple with these concepts that are pretty high-level [thinking],” Patterson says.
Most textbooks, however, tend to relegate these complex, sprawling issues to a few brief pages of sanitized, third-person history. In a recent analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center, popular K-12 history texts received an average grade of 46 percent for their ability to “convey the realities of slavery” and connect this history to “the enduring impact of racial oppression on contemporary American life.” No texts received a score higher than 70 percent based on the center’s rubric.
Teaching the Holocaust
Textbooks about the Holocaust “leave students with this fragmented idea that everything was great and then one day people woke up and the Holocaust happened,” Rich says. “They don’t give students a chance to explore the prewar period, what actually happened during the war, and how people rebuilt afterwards.”
Talking to young people about human atrocities, however, is no easy feat. Many educators teach these histories directly from a textbook “because that feels really safe and really comfortable,” Rich says. While it’s important to know the facts, it’s just as important to understand that “this was something perpetrated by real people onto other people, and I think that really gets lost sometimes in Holocaust education.”
Presenting multiple perspectives and using diverse sources are key to effectively teaching these complicated histories, both Patterson and Rich say. Incorporating multiple disciplines, especially literature, is highly recommended.
Historically accurate, age-appropriate Holocaust narratives for adolescents and teenagers, such as Lois Lowry’s book Number the Stars, are readily accessible, Rich says. She also advocates for looking at primary sources such as propaganda that can push students to think critically about the role of rhetoric in spreading anti-Semitism.
One classroom activity Rich recommends is looking at the various badges and symbols used to mark different victim groups during the Holocaust. Many students don’t realize that people who identified as LGBTQ, had disabilities, or were from certain ethnic minority groups were also targeted by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps, she says.
Seeing actual images of these badges makes this seemingly distant time period more real for students. Discussing why Nazis targeted certain identity groups requires critical thinking about the motivations behind White supremacy and its connections to modern events.
“People have been drawing a lot of comparisons between current American politics and fascism or Nazism, so it’s something students definitely ask about,” Rich says. She urges teachers to take these questions as an opportunity to educate about the long history of anti-Semitism on a global scale.
A grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Rich says it’s important to let students know that genocide is “a horrific example” of what can happen when hatred is allowed to spread. This history can be “applied as a critical lens” to the world today without misleading students into thinking that current events equate to another Holocaust, she says.
“Don’t be afraid to talk about these things with kids,” Rich says.
Patterson says she reminds students that as dark as these histories may seem, there are always people who engage in resistance and choose not to follow the prescribed social path.
“I tell students that in every time period of injustice there have been people who stood up for what was right no matter the cost,” she says. “You have to balance this history out with hope.”
Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of DiversityIS. This article ran in the Summer 2019 issue.