The Importance of Holocaust Education

The Importance of Holocaust Education

By Joe Fab, director of Paper Clips

One of the reasons that making Paper Clips was such a joy is that I spent so much time in that middle school in rural Tennessee where children were learning! And in this case, they were learning about something that I’m sure all those reading this believe is critically important: the Holocaust. But I didn’t realize back in the early 2000’s just how poorly we, as a nation, educate our young people about the critical history and lessons of that horrible event.

And so, when Cheryl Rattner Price asked me to become involved with The Butterfly Project and to help create the film NOT The Last Butterfly, the opportunity to help further Holocaust education convinced me to accept. By then I had become aware of our societal failures in this subject area and was beginning to understand some of the reasons for those failures. I also learned – much to my surprise – how many of us assume that basic Holocaust education is being taught in all our public schools. Not so!

Why Holocaust Education is needed

It would be hard to prove this point more dramatically than author and teacher Rhonda Fink-Whitman of 94 Maidens does in a short video for which she interviewed public school graduates enrolled at four major universities in Pennsylvania. It plays a lot like Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” routines, but in this case it’s no laughing matter. Rhonda’s video helped spur the legislature in her home state of Pennsylvania to require Holocaust education. Her video and efforts also helped in campaigns that eventually brought similar mandatory curricula to Michigan and Rhode Island. But even with those three states getting on board, there are now only eight states in this country that require Holocaust education in the classroom. And it’s not getting any easier to change this picture; in fact, it’s getting harder.

There are a few basic and very formidable forces at play that help explain why many efforts to make Holocaust education mandatory have failed – or have not even gotten off the ground.

No national standards

First, there is no applicable set of national curriculum requirements. Rather, each state takes its own approach to what should be taught. So, as Rhonda can tell you, it takes a concerted and sustained effort in each state where one wishes to bring about change. And that means becoming immersed in that state’s particular political system, learning to work effectively within that system, identifying sympathetic lawmakers, helping craft bills to be proposed, etc, etc. It’s easy to see how big an undertaking this is. And if you speak to anyone who has experience in such things, you’ll find that even getting onto a legislative docket means competing for attention with a plethora of other proposed legislation – some of it more immediately vital than Holocaust education, and some of it perceived to be.

Teaching to the test

A second obstacle can be summed up in three words: testing, testing and testing. As any parent knows, public school education today focuses intently on “teaching to the test” – that is, making performance on standardized exams paramount among teaching objectives. This practice has the effect of pushing other subjects to the margins, while making math and language arts dominant. So with science, social studies, the arts and other study areas all clamoring for a bit of class time, anything newly proposed has a very hard struggle ahead of it.

Potential progress

Nevertheless, on Yom Hashoah this year the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect announced some very welcome news: legislators in 20 states have signed a pledge to introduce bills mandating genocide education – either adding it to the state curriculum or strengthening existing requirements. The intention is to teach students that genocide, as Massachusetts Representative Jeffrey Roy put it, “is not just somebody else’s story,” but rather to show how the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and other atrocities threaten all of humanity.
Of course, how those efforts will fare remains to be seen, and the great responsibility of ensuring that the generations we’re raising learn from history – and especially from the history of the Holocaust – falls to all of us. That’s why The Butterfly Project is undaunted in the face of these (and other) challenges, and remains determined to do all it can to make Holocaust education a national priority. Already we have programs in motion that are reaching out directly to teachers and to people like you who care about this issue.
So stay tuned for articles to come about how you and those around you can promote the teaching of effective Holocaust education where you live and across this country. In the meantime, check out the op-ed I wrote, The urgent need for Holocaust education in an era of ‘alternative facts’, that ran in the New York Daily News in January and check out Rhonda Fink-Whitman’s powerful video. And, most importantly, know that your support is being used to make sure that the phrase “Never Forget” represents a permanent, meaningful stand for learning from the past and creating a more peaceful, tolerant future.