How not to forget about the Holocaust

In this time of renewed debate about what students should learn about history, I think we’re once again missing the bigger point. Most American students aren’t being taught in ways that result in their remembering much of anything about history.

Here’s an Out in Left Field post from a decade ago.

So how best to address so few of today’s students knowing about the Holocaust? By today’s students, I mean, of course, American students in particular, notorious the world over for their supreme ignorance of world events.

First of all, what’s responsible for this ignorance? There are surely a number of factors, some of them having mostly to do with “kids these days”–things like pathetic reading habits and a preference for all other forms and genres of media (unprecedented in number and variety) over the news media–especially the sort of news media that brings in any kind of historical perspective.

But it’s also “schools these days.” Current trends in social studies have teachers shying away from the kinds of quizzes and tests that motivate students to internalize and systematize core knowledge or risk low grades. And current trends also have teachers teaching thematically rather than chronologically, with themes like Slavery or Revolution or Dictatorship or Equality. A particular factor is lifted out of a bunch of different times and places, each instance of that factor thus stripped of its historical and cultural contexts. The different instances of Slavery, etc., are discussed in terms of the tired generalities they share rather than the particularities that make them distinctly memorable. Even when the theme is Genocide, the conflation of the genocides in Rwanda and Armenia and that of the Holocaust doesn’t result in students remembering when the Holocaust happened, what led up to it, how many people were murdered, and what consequences are still playing out to this very day. The takeaway, instead, is something more like “people sometimes let bad people come to power and turn grassroots prejudices into complicity in mass murder, with citizens self-interestedly obeying authority and following orders.” The banality of evil is very far from the whole story.

That’s the problem with what I fear these renewed calls for mandatory Holocaust instruction will result in: taking the Holocaust out of context and focusing on what it says about man’s capacity for dehumanizing prejudice and massive evil, which, important though this message is, risks coming at the expense of analyzing what actually led up to the Holocaust in particular. If one of the reasons to remember the Holocaust is to make sure it never happens again, people need to learn what factors made early 20th century Germany particularly susceptible to perpetrating it.

Teaching history chronologically may seem boring, but teaching major events within their proper chronological contexts, and creating a vivid sense of the times and places in which they occur, actually make them much more meaningful and memorable. If we want students to actually remember key historical events and not just appreciate them, then our objective shouldn’t be for them to cram these events down their throats and regurgitate them in the short term, but for them to chew these events over on their own over time. If students see historical events as sufficiently vivid and significant, they will think about them from time to time after class is over, and the spaced repetition and recall practice that solidifies things into long term memory will be largely self-motivated.

For lasting effects on memory, history poses a particular challenge. It’s less skills-based than math and language arts. It contains much more factual content than even the most fact-intensive of other grade school courses (say, biology and chemistry). And it’s less cumulatively repetitive than (traditional) math, which has students re-applying the standard algorithms of arithmetic all the way through algebra, and algebraic techniques well into calculus.

In other countries, history is the centerpiece of social studies instruction throughout school, taught yearly, with other fact-rich social studies courses–geography and economics–reinforcing it rather than replacing it. And there’s at least some revisiting of previously taught material. In today’s French schools, I recently learned, this revisiting happens yearly. Starting at least as early as middle school (and perhaps earlier) history courses survey all of world history. First it’s just a general outline, but with each succeeding year new material is added. This strikes me as a promising way to create a solid scaffolding for long term memory and then systematically build it up through spaced repetition–very much in line with current findings in cognitive science about what makes for stable long-term memories.

But here in America, except for certain favored topics in early American history, from Columbus to the Pilgrims to the Civil War and Reconstruction, most American students encounter major bodies of historical knowledge–ancient history, the Roman Empire, the rise of modern China, the colonization and post-colonization of Africa, etc—only once, if at all. With American teachers teaching less systematically (thank theme-based instruction) and less fact-intensively (thank the mere-facts-vs-higher-level-thinking, 21st-Century-Skills, and you-can-always-look-it-up-on-the-Internet mentalities), American students encounter far fewer facts than their counterparts overseas. With American teachers covering content less efficiently (thank child-centered learning), and students getting bogged down in big projects and project presentations (thank Project Based Learning), many students never get past one or both World Wars, or breeze over most of the 20th century too quickly to find it interesting–let alone compelling enough to follow through into current events.

Returning now to the basic question: what to do about students not knowing about the Holocaust? The short answer is to look at the world more systematically. Look at it more systematically both in terms of its history, and in terms of how other countries teach history. And, in particular, how they manage to raise students who are so much more historically aware than ours are.

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