Volume:4, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2012

Exploring Difficulties in Teaching Holocaust Education, and an Explanation of Classroom Practices to Overcome These Difficulties
Boyer, Eric S. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: Holocaust education, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, anti-Semitism, death as a topic, “Holocaust Fatigue,” History classroom, cultural/commercial trivialization, curricular overexposure, political/religious contentiousness.
SYNOPSIS: In this paper the author seeks to accomplish three objectives: to describe some of the overarching difficulties educators face when approaching the Holocaust, and find the reasons why these difficulties impede youth understanding of the topic; to extend personal teaching practices in teaching the Holocaust to his own high school World History classes, and finally, to make an attempt to extend good teaching practices centered in Holocaust Education as a Historical topic to another subject area, notably the teaching of Psychology.


Holocaust education is an education rooted in life.  It is an education critical to an understanding of what it means to be alive and part of a humanity that seeks to make sense of its place within the larger historical framework.  The website created by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum cites ten reasons why the Holocaust should be an integral part of any social studies curriculum, and they are all rooted in the notion that to help us all make sense of this watershed moment in history, we must begin with an understanding of what it means to be human, and more broadly, what it means to be moral within an increasingly diverse and multi-cultural humanity.  Reason number eight for studying the Holocaust stated by the website is that “Thinking about these events can help students to develop an awareness of the value of pluralism and encourages acceptance of diversity in a pluralistic society” (www.ushmm.org/education).  

Holocaust Education is also, however, an education rooted in death.  Death as a topic to be explored through critical pedagogy already carries with it a vast array of personal convictions, emotional underpinnings and both philosophical and religious connotations.  And taken to the extreme, the topic of death on the grandest of scales, and at the hands of humans themselves in the form of genocide, is inevitably wrought with further difficulties.  Review of an essay by Simone Schweber (2006) titled Holocaust Fatigue, a book by Geoffrey Short and Carol Reed, Issues in Holocaust Education, and the website provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum all identified three main difficulties that have in their place barriers to sound implementation of a Holocaust curriculum.  Succinctly put by Schweber (2006), these difficulties are “cultural/commercial trivialization, curricular overexposure, and political/religious contentiousness” (Schweber, p. 46). 

The first of these difficulties, this “trivialization” has to do with the general shying away of serious in-depth treatment and analysis of the Holocaust on the part of teachers because of the sheer gravity of the topic.  The Holocaust experienced during World War II represents one of the most horrid, yet natural experiments in the range of human behavior ever conducted, and is a powerful and emotional way to assist young learners in realizing a philosophy of education, that is making sense of humanity both intellectually and morally.  The power of emotionality the Holocaust brings to education, however, can ironically be a reason for it being left out of an individual teacher’s curriculum.  Simply because of its weight as a topic many teachers just as soon decide not to teach it.  A doctoral dissertation by Karen Spector (2005) revealed many of these same sentiments by teachers across the country in her interviews with various social studies educators.  In one exchange with a teacher she reveals this statement: “I kind of tread lightly with the religious things because while most of my students are Baptist, talking about Christian anti-Semitism would get people on all sides riled up” (Spector, p. 52).  Evidence from other statements high school teachers make imply similar sentiments, namely that the Holocaust is just too “heavy” a topic to cover.  Thus, an immediately recognized difficulty in the implementation of sound Holocaust education is first and foremost its outright exclusion from the curriculum.    

When a teacher does decide to include some form of Holocaust education into the curriculum it can often become “trivialized” for a number of different reasons.  One may be that the allotted time available to devote to the topic is small, so teachers must pluck the most basic “essentials” of what the Holocaust was, without unearthing the deeper meanings and connections to it.  With the vast amount of information and topics already available and/or required to cover in a World or United States history class, a teacher may decide to just include a mention of the Holocaust as part of the wider scope of human history.  This in turn would not provide what otherwise might be considered “sufficient treatment,” the result of course being a simplistic or “watered down” version that students could simply brush aside as another “thing” to learn in history. 

Another aspect of this “trivial” treatment is what Schweber (2006) refers to as “cultural desensitization.”  In her essay, Schweber (2006) points out that within the last fifteen to twenty years a certain triviality has permeated our cultural understanding of the Holocaust as revealed by its depiction as comical farce in a range of media representations.  Examples she cites include television episodes of the popular television shows such as the “Simpsons” and “Seinfeld”, as well as the cable show produced by Larry David entitled Curb your Enthusiasm “in which a holocaust survivor is pitted against a winner of the show Survivor to determine who had fewer snacks” (Schweber, p. 45).  Because notions of what the Holocaust was have bled into popular culture and have been glossed over by media outlets, the gravity of its place in history has been seriously compromised.  This in turn has possibly led teachers who decide to deal with the topic towards an already pre-packaged deliverance of the Holocaust, void of the extra historical analysis or special connections across time that might otherwise be made.  The weight of the Holocaust, both historically and psychologically, is in effect lifted when this situation takes place, and serves only to “trivialize” its treatment as a historical topic worthy of deeper emotionality.  Shweber (2004) observed a college-level classroom in which a group of students used a Quiz-Show-style game and candy as rewards to review information while studying the Holocaust.  Her reaction was thus: “The juxtapositions were excruciating to me, the game show, candy, and Auschwitz; worse than a bad joke, the combination seemed to me an obvious example of Holocaust trivialization” (Schweber, p. 44).  An important question for educators then becomes what types of activities or curricular models are available to assist good Holocaust education that will not hinder its understanding on a level beyond the accounting of gory details, or winning a game show.    

The second difficulty identified by a review of sources is very much connected to the first.  It is the title of Schweber’s (2006) essay and it refers to this notion of “curricular overexposure,” or what she terms “Holocaust Fatigue” (Schweber, p. 44).  This refers to the teacher who may approach the weight and gravity of the Holocaust from the opposite perspective of the teacher deciding not to discuss it at all.  This teacher believes that the importance of Holocaust education carries with it the need to expose students to it over and again, across multiple grade-levels, and in multiple settings.  With such constant coverage, however, the danger can be that students might either get bored by the material, irritated at having to learn about it “again,” or simply desensitized to the depth of the content.  Short and Reed (2004) echoed this sentiment in their book Issues in Holocaust Education with the simple statement: “this particular event is being taught to death” (Short & Reed, p. 67).  The context of this statement is later expounded upon when the authors emphasize an important question posed to educators.  This question is not about whether or not to provide a broad, in-depth and multi-disciplinary treatment of the Holocaust, for they vehemently claim that this should be the norm.  Rather the question becomes, within such “Holocaust saturation” how can educators consistently make the material across multiple grade levels and disciplines “interesting, meaningful, intellectually engaging, and emotionally affecting” (Short & Reed, p. 67). 

The third difficulty ascribed to effective Holocaust education is political and/or religious contentiousness.  This difficulty can be framed in many ways, as well as manifested for a variety of different reasons, but the simple fact remains, extreme religious beliefs and political convictions lie at the heart of the topic.  From macro level political issues such as the current state of Jewish affairs between Israel and Palestine, on down to specific micro level religious issues such as an individual teacher’s beliefs regarding the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, there is no shortage of outside sentiments or opinions working to undermine a sound Holocaust education.  All sources reviewed spoke at length and in detail about many of these issues, and in their own ways came to the same conclusion:  that the quality teacher of Holocaust education, be it textbook, museum, classroom teacher or school district, utilize these outlying and influencing variables as an advantage rather than a detriment. 

Short and Reed (2004) devote Chapter 6 Holocaust Education and Citizenship in their book to the topic of political literacy.  The introduction to this chapter in the preface states: “In relation to political literacy more broadly defined, a study of the Holocaust and the socio-political developments that gave rise to it, may prompt students to consider the measures that liberal democracies need to take in order to safeguard their fundamental freedoms” (Short & Reed, p. 3).  They go on to describe the ways in which a Holocaust curriculum might be framed around this broader reflection of political literacy, and assist young learners in making sense of the political world of the past as well as the present through the “lens” of the Holocaust. 

With regard to the Holocaust being religiously “charged,” there is the obvious curricular avoidance on the part of teachers.  Teachers may not want to expose their personal beliefs, may feel that discussions and/or activities might degenerate into religious debates, or simply may not feel equipped to handle issues surrounding the targeting of a specific religious group (among others).  This is especially acute when a very surface level eyeing of the Holocaust can seem too “black and white,” that some high school students might simply see the situation as Christians killing Jews.  In her dissertation, Spector (2005) at one point states:

Omitting the history of anti-Semitism in teaching about the Holocaust permits mostly Christian students to avoid unpleasant encounters with their religion’s history, and the omission also allows teachers to avoid possibly unpleasant encounters with Christian parents (Spector, p. 56). 

The implication here is that failure to provide Holocaust education specifically, erodes the ability for young history students to comprehend anti-Semitism and religious extremism in general.  And even with a well-delivered and constructed Holocaust curriculum, there still might be either outright deletion of, or incompetence on the part of the teacher to examine the broader historical religious tensions that the Holocaust reveals.  From their many interviews with high school and college level students Schweber and Irwin (2003) pointed out, “While the students we studied had learned what had happened to Jews and other victimized groups, they had not learned why Jews as a group were specifically targeted nor why other groups were voraciously pursued” (Schweber & Irwin, p. 1694).  The emphasis therefore on the “why” of Holocaust understanding is just as important (if not more so) as the “what,” and seems to be lacking in many high school and college-level history courses. 

Ultimately, literature reviewed came to the overall consensus that comprehension of this important topic on the part of students will serve to increase their wider conceptualization of politics and religion in relation to other historical events and time periods, as well as assist in navigating understandings of political and religious issues current today.

All three of these interweaving difficulties; trivialization, curricular overexposure and political/religious contentiousness, present themselves as obstacles to good Holocaust education.  An understanding of these difficulties on the part of educators is crucial in creating curriculum that will provide a richer, more meaningful experience when it comes to examining the Holocaust. 

Approaching these difficulties in my own World History classroom

Currently in my tenth year as a high school teacher I have taught variations of World History or Advanced Placement (AP) World History courses, United States History, AP European History, and/or some combination of the four in any given school year.  In all contexts I have given as equal a treatment of the Holocaust as I could, barring time, district, or “scope and sequence” limitations.  I have at times exercised some liberties in “massaging” the limits of those boundaries for the sake of providing what I feel to be “sound” Holocaust education, and have not only professional but very personal reasons why I think the topic deserves sufficient in-depth examination.

Teaching a “sound” Holocaust Education in my classroom consists of three main elements, or strands.  The first is making sure my students enter the Holocaust Unit with a working knowledge of anti-Semitism and its historical roots.  The second is framing the Holocaust as an event around six very distinct themes, or movements.  And the last is connecting the Holocaust to well-developed and widely cited psychological theories pertaining to human behavior and social cognition.  These strands work to ameliorate the aforementioned difficulties inherent in producing a valid Holocaust curriculum, and treat both macro and micro level issues when dealing with its embedded emotionality and politico-religious contentiousness.     

Making sure my students enter the Holocaust Unit with an understanding of the historical roots of anti-Semitism is relatively easy in my World, AP World or AP European courses, as lessons, activities and units previously delivered throughout the school year inevitably touch on the topic in various ways. 

For example, in teaching World or AP World history my unit on early river valley civilizations contains lessons and activities about the Ancient Hebrews and their legacy of being the first truly monotheistic religion.  The context of these lessons is delivered amid the surrounding religious zeitgeist of polytheistic beliefs, and the notion that from the outset, the Jews as a people were an originally marginalized group.  This is coupled with treatment of the historical underpinnings of the Jewish exodus from Egypt led by Moses, and the search for a “homeland” by the Jews, which helps to set the stage for an overall comprehension of the Jewish people as an ever increasing marginalized group.  The next time my students encounter anti-Semitic content is when I deliver activities and lessons pertaining to Jesus of Nazareth and the subsequent rise of Christianity during the middle centuries of the Roman Empire.  The comparisons between Judaism and Christianity and the very important implementation of lessons designed to draw sharp distinctions between the two world religions helps students recognize not only the birth of these religions as world faiths, but helps to frame subsequent 20th century notions of differences (real and imagined) between these two faiths as well.  The third time my students receive an ever-developing notion of anti-Semitism is within the context of the swirling religiously charged centuries of the early modern era, roughly 1450-1750.  Sound treatment of the Renaissance, Reformation and specifically the Spanish Inquisition of the 1490’s really helps to bolster an understanding of an increasingly entrenched anti-Semitism permeating the Christian (Catholic) world by the time of the 20th century.  Working knowledge of the Early Modern period’s extreme religious contentiousness within Europe only serves to provide students with a much broader framework and historical understanding of where the extreme anti-Semitism of the 20th century comes from. 

I enter my Unit on Holocaust Education with the confidence that my students already have a solid comprehension of why we’re studying this event in the first place.  In her essay on “Holocaust Fatigue” Schweber (2006) suggests that the first step in lessening this cultural desensitization surrounding the Holocaust is to make sure it is examined within a much larger historical and cultural framework.  “The Holocaust can’t make sense without an initial teaching of the history of anti-Semitism.  Present day anti-Semitic materials and incidents only make more sense in light of it” (Schweber, p. 50).  It makes perfect pedagogical sense then, to tap prior knowledge of students when encountering an historical event as profound as the Holocaust, and it is my professional obligation as the teacher to make sure the requisite prior knowledge is tentatively (if not firmly) in place.  The lessons and activities produced prior to treatment of the Holocaust have, therefore, worked to produce not only an understanding of the roots of anti-Semitism, but have provided historical and cultural context as well, effectively ameliorating the potential barrier of a “trivialized” Holocaust Education.  For if the context of the Holocaust is delivered amid an entrenched historical and deeply felt hatred of the Jews as a people, then the “weight” or “gravity” of the event can be felt on a much grander scale.    

The second element to teaching the Holocaust in my classroom is firmly embedded in the event itself.  This is the “meat” of the Unit and I try to provide as rich an experience as I can within the limited time available around six main “themes” or “movements” identified.  Within these six strands, or “movements,” I aim to supply my students with both primary and secondary sources that assist in making “sense” of the particular movement amid the wider contextual framework as well.  For example, when dealing with the initial strand of the situation of the Jews under Hitler’s regime, I include primary source documents in the form of the “Nuremburg Laws.”  These documents give powerful primary source evidence of the “legality” of Jewish subjugation and assist in helping students understand the power of “law” in any context regardless of the acknowledgement of civil and/or religious rights.  The second movement of the event I term the “ghettos,” I include diary entries of Jews who experienced life within the ghettos directly, helping students get a sense of what life really must have been like within an enclave of recently marginalized society.  With the third strand, that of the concentration camps themselves, I provide both first-hand accounts in the form of diaries and short stories, as well as outside sources in the form of the first encounters American troops had with these camps in order to come up with an emotionally charged account of both concentration camp “life” as well as perceived response to their subsequent discovery by outside forces.  Fourth of these movements is centered around the perpetrators of the Holocaust, specifically dealing with sources and documents aimed at understanding how and/or why individuals within Hitler’s regime could, as human beings, systematically carry out such heinous acts of barbarity.  This strand of “perpetrators” aims at providing students with accounts and interviews by actual Nazi guards themselves and runs the gamut of those indifferent to the killings, to those who knew something was “wrong” but had self-preservation in mind.  The fifth movement I call “liberation” touches on the writings and musings of those survivors that attempt to reconcile feelings of guilt with those of extreme happiness at surviving these harrowing events.  And finally, the sixth movement is the notion of response.  In the many years following World War II, how and in what ways have the responses to the Holocaust shaped not only the survivor’s beliefs and their outlook on life, but the responses resonating with general populations of Europe and the wider world as well.  This in effect takes students into the heart of an examination of the Holocaust as an event that inevitably “happened,” and why the socio-cultural events embedded in the Holocaust served to create this situation of utter degradation and destruction.  

A second suggestion to educators in order to avoid “Holocaust Fatigue” is to “provide students with a range of explanations for perpetrators’ behaviors.  Harder than teaching about the experience of victimization, it may also be much more important to explain the agents of atrocity, for this marks a local step in the global direction of eradicating violence” (Schweber, p. 50).  This notion of “agents of atrocity” as identified by Schweber (2006) helps to round out the six strands of the event itself and gives students an overarching summary of the event as a reflection of the powers of group dynamics and social cognitive theory in general. 

The final “strand” I employ, as an element of Holocaust Education embedded in my teaching practice is the cross-disciplinary treatment of the psychological forces contributing to the event itself.  This strategy not only lessens the aforementioned difficulties of “trivialization” and “desensitization,” but also reduces the political and/or religious contentiousness.  When approaching the Holocaust as a psychological event, the study becomes one of human nature in general, and strips away connotations associated with political, religious or specifically cultural explanations.  The Holocaust is unique in that it offers an example of an historical event that could conceivably (and specifically has been) part of other societies and situations across various time periods and cultures.  Thus, the psychological underpinnings are worth noting and examining in terms of the wider implications to human nature regardless of specific cultural differences.                    

I teach this strand by introducing the psychological phenomenon known as the banality of evil: when killing becomes habit, when an action is repeated over and over again it becomes “regular”.  This notion of ‘habit’ is at the heart of behaviorism.  B.F. Skinner (1938) postulated that human behavior is stripped down to two essential criteria: either trying to get, or avoid something.  Adolf Hitler was a master of manipulating the truths inherent in behaviorist theory and practice.  And it is the Holocaust that represents the most recent ‘real world’ example of habit skewed towards a negative direction.  Enough ‘habit’ and any sculpting of human behavior, especially on a grand scale, can be achieved, especially if the ‘sculptor’ is persuasive, domineering, and understanding of the needs inherent to a deprived population.  With B.F. Skinner’s (1938) model of trying to “get” or “avoid,” in the case of 1930’s Germany, the obvious adherents would be those trying to “get” a better life for the German people and nation, and trying to “avoid” the degradations of the worldwide Depression enfolding on a global scale.  Wade and Tavris (2002) in their treatment of “behavior in social and cultural context” expound upon the idea that “from the standpoint of social, and cultural psychology, all human beings, like all cultures, contain the potential for good and bad” (Wade & Tavris, p. 325).  They postulate that how most of us actually behave in a given situation depends more on human social organization than on human nature.  In the trial of Adolf Eichmann, for example, the Nazi officer who supervised the deportation and death of millions of Jews, the philosopher Hannah Arendt (1963) was the first to use the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how it was possible for Eichmann and other ordinary people in Nazi Germany to commit the monstrous acts they did.  The term “banal” in this sense referring to something that is common place, or unoriginal.  And as Wade and Tavris (2002) repeatedly point out, “the hardest lesson in psychology is that unusual instances of sadism or heroism are firmly embedded in cultural norms and traditions” (Wade & Tavris, p. 325).  This reinforces the notion that, within a psychological context, an over-arching treatment of socio-cultural and psychological concepts embedded within a strong historical ‘handling’ of the Holocaust can serve a much wider purpose.   Framing Holocaust Education around these larger interconnected cultural understandings can serve to lessen those political and/or religious difficulties inherent in delivering a sound Holocaust Education.  

Conclusions

It has been my intention to identify three very broad difficulties inherent in delivering a sound Holocaust Education based on reviews of essays, websites, book chapters and surveys devoted to the topic.  The three main difficulties identified are those of cultural/commercial trivialization, curricular overexposure, and political/religious contentiousness.  I have then sought to offer specific examples from my own teaching practices as to how I feel one may ameliorate these difficulties in the high school classroom.  The three strands I employ in the classroom are: first, delivering a solid historical background in anti-Semitic thought and activity, second, working with distinct primary and subsidiary source documents to immerse students in the event itself framed by six “movements,” and finally, to develop an overarching psychological understanding rooted in constructs of human behavior inherent to all peoples regardless of time, place or culture.  I, certainly, don’t claim this to be a definitive answer to the way or ways in which Holocaust Education should be treated, but do make the claim that it has been in my estimation as a professional high school educator, a powerful way to treat the intense emotionality of the subject, and serve as a positive contribution to the young learners’ understanding of what it means to be human in an historical and cultural context. 

Further examination of specific difficulties surrounding implementation of Holocaust Education should continue, and it is my hope, as an educator, to maintain an open-ended conversation about the best ways this education, so rooted in life and death, ultimately needs to continue.    

References

  • Arendt, Hannah (1963).  Eichmann in Jerusalem:  A report on the banality of evil.  New York: Viking.
  • Paxton, R.O. (2004).  The Anatomy of Fascism. Vintage Books, A Division of Random House New York, NY.  p. 158-163
  • Schweber, S. & Irwin, R. (2003). “Especially Special:  Learning about Jews in a Fundamentalist Christian School.”  Teachers College Record, 105 (9) 1693-1719
  • Schweber, S. (2004). Making Sense of the Holocaust:  Lessons from Classroom Practice. New York:  Teachers College Press.
  • Schweber, S. (2006). “Holocaust Fatigue” in teaching today.  Social Education, 70(1) 44-50
  • Short, G., & Reed, C.A. (2004). Issues in Holocaust Education. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing
  • Skinner, B.F. (1938).  The behavior of organisms:  An experimental analysis.  New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Spector, K. (2005). Framing the Holocaust in English Class:  Secondary Teachers and Students Reading Holocaust Literature. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Cincinnati, Ohio).
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2012). Why Teach About the Holocaust?  Retrieved from: www.ushmm.org/education
  • Wade, C., & Tavris, C. (2002).  Invitation to Psychology. (2nd ed.) Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Boyer, Eric S. – Teacher, Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington; doctorate student, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA

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