September 7, 2006 -- Vol.11, No.1
The State of Holocaust Education in Illinois
Within the United States, Holocaust education at the primary and secondary school levels has accelerated dramatically during the last two decades. Sixteen states have passed some type of legislation concerning Holocaust education. Alabama, California, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia have created Holocaust Commissions or Task Forces. California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington State have passed laws requiring the teaching of the Holocaust, or that Holocaust education be apart of the curriculum. Ohio and Pennsylvania have made curricular guides available to their teachers. In states where curricula are not available, teachers have access to a wide assortment of resources including books, museums, workshops, films, programs, and speakers. One estimate is that 65,000 of the 135,000 social studies teachers for grades 7-12 mention the Holocaust in their classrooms (Totten, 2001, p. 305).
Yet, this proliferation of Holocaust education has also raised some deep and troubling issues. Lucy Dawidowicz (1990) and Samuel Totten (2001) have argued that the time devoted to the Holocaust is sorely inadequate, that the curriculum guides, used by students and teachers, are poorly written and laced with factual errors, and that the methodologies teachers employ, such as simulations, could be psychologically detrimental to students’ well being in that the simulations encourage students to enter into the pathological minds of the perpetrators or conversely that the simulations encourage students to over-identify with the victims. Lucy Dawidowicz (1960) has argued that the Holocaust is often trivialized by those teachers who compare it to other genocides, such as those in Armenia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, or who place the Holocaust within the context of intolerance and prejudice, rather than a specific type of intolerance, namely, antisemitism. Perhaps most disconcerting is the question raised by scholars as to whether the majority of public school teachers possess the necessary training and preparation to teach about this most complex and emotional subject (Shawn 1995; Schwartz 1990).
At present, it is impossible to assess the overall condition of Holocaust education in the United States because only the most preliminary of studies have been completed. A review of the literature reveals that most scholars have concentrated their attention on what “should be taught”; far fewer have concentrated on what “is actually taught”. The surveys that have been published on Holocaust education primarily relate to the college level, specifically Christian colleges, and only the most rudimentary of surveys have been conducted on the primary and secondary levels. The problem of ascertaining the current state of Holocaust education in the United States has been compounded by the lack of a central disseminating agency for Holocaust materials, as well as the decentralized nature of American schools, which leaves most educational decisions to the state and local levels. Within any given state, researchers are largely working blind and intuiting about the current state of Holocaust education.
Statement of Purpose
We began this study to address concerns found in the literature that “No systematic study has yet been undertaken to assess the extent and quality of Holocaust education in the United States” (Totten, 2001, p. 305). To this end, we decided to examine the current state of Holocaust education in Illinois, which in 1990 became the first state to mandate the teaching of the Holocaust. After reviewing the literature, we decided that the study must focus on two specific purposes. The first purpose was to report and assess the condition of Holocaust education practices at the high school level within the state of Illinois by answering basic research questions: who is teaching it?; what is being taught?; when is it being taught?; where is it being taught?; how is it being taught?; and why is it being taught?. By focusing on these questions, we expected to determine whether schools in Illinois were in compliance with the mandate to teach a unit of study on the Holocaust. Moreover, we hoped to provide important baseline data for future researchers, policy makers, and practitioners in making decisions about the efficacy of passing state-wide Holocaust mandates.
The second purpose of our study was to ascertain factors that cause particular schools to emphasize Holocaust education more than other schools. The results of our study of the emphasis placed on Holocaust education are reported in a companion piece, “The Emphasis placed on Holocaust Education in Illinois.” At the time of this publication, these two studies – the extent to which it is taught – and – the emphasis that is placed on it -- represent the largest study of Holocaust education practices on a statewide level ever conducted in the United States.
The study used a quantitative non-experimental descriptive design. To provide answers relative to the delivery of Holocaust instruction in Illinois descriptive data were collected on: (a) who is teaching it; (b) when and where is it being taught; (c) what is being taught; (d) how is it being delivered and evaluated; and (e) why is it being taught?
The population examined in this study encompassed all public high schools in Illinois. A random sample of 410 of the 657 public high schools operating during the 1999-2000 calendar years in Illinois was drawn to collect the data. Each school’s principal was asked to distribute the surveys to all teachers in his or her school who teach the Holocaust. Responses were received from two hundred and nineteen of the four hundred and ten schools for a 53.4 % return rate, which according to the chief statistician for the Illinois Board of Education represented a “fairly safe” sampling of Holocaust education in Illinois.
The high schools that participated in the study represented a wide variety of geographical, socio-economic, and academic settings within the state (See Table 1). The largest percentage of responses came from (a) rural areas, (b) in the middle socio-economic bracket, and (c) encompassing the traditional high school with grades 9-12. However, a significant number of responses also came from suburban locations and lower socio-economic brackets.
Finding no Holocaust education survey specifically geared to the high school level, these researchers in consultation with Dr. Alan Berger, who holds the Raddock Chair in Holocaust Studies at Florida Atlantic University, created a new survey instrument. This survey was divided into nine parts and asked respondents to answer basic analytic questions about who, what, when, where, how and why regarding Holocaust education. Additionally, it asked respondents to provide information about their personal background and the demographics of their schools. The instrument was validated in the following ways. First, a review of the literature was conducted and a pool of survey items was established. A panel of Holocaust scholars was asked for comments, suggestions, and improvements regarding the survey. We then reviewed their comments and the survey was modified to accommodate those suggestions that were also in agreement with the literature.
The data reported in this article employed descriptive statistics to answer basic questions about Holocaust education in Illinois. These findings are presented in the following paragraphs and tables.
Who is Teaching the Holocaust in Illinois High Schools?
The teachers who responded to the survey were distributed among most age groups and were primarily though not exclusively Caucasian. Approximately 61% percent of the teachers who responded were male, and 39% were female. The respondents were almost equally divided among age groups, with the largest group being in the 51 to 60 category. As described in Table 2, some teachers were Jewish (5%), but the majority of teachers of the Holocaust were Christian, first Protestants (53%), and then Catholics (33%).
The data in Table 3 indicates that most teachers who responded to the survey were well educated in that they possessed a Master’s degree (53%), specialized in history and/or social studies (96%), were certified and tenured, had 1-10 years of teaching experience (43%), or were veteran teachers with 21+ years of teaching experience (33%). Most (51%) had been teaching the Holocaust for 10 years or less (roughly the elapsed time period of Illinois’ mandate to teach the Holocaust), or had been teaching the subject for 21+ years (24%).
In terms of sources of information about the Holocaust, most of the respondents indicated that they learned about the Holocaust through personal reading and/or academia. A high percentage (84%) learned about it in high school, but an even higher percentage (90%) learned about it in college or post-graduate work. Most teachers (86%) were aware of the Illinois mandate to teach about the Holocaust, however, were confused about other subjects mandated by the State of Illinois. For example, 19% of Illinois teachers erroneously identified the Irish potato famine as a subject mandated by the State of Illinois (Ellison, 2002, p.93).
Responding teachers expressed strong opinions about the general state of Holocaust education. For example:
1. Most teachers favored mandates to teach the Holocaust (61%);
2. Most teachers believed that the Jewish community did not overemphasize the Holocaust (91.7%);
3. Most teachers felt academically prepared to teach about the Holocaust (87.7 %);
4. Some teachers felt that additional training would lead to increased emphasis on the Holocaust (46.3%);
5. Some teachers felt they would emphasize Holocaust education to a greater extent if given a curriculum from the State of Illinois (40%);
6. Few teachers believed that they would emphasize the Holocaust to a greater extent with additional support from administrators (19%); while
7. Even fewer teachers believed that they would emphasize the Holocaust to a greater extent if they had more support from colleagues (16%).
As it related to their schools, most respondents (84%) believed that the Holocaust would continue to be taught at their school even if they retired; most (73%) believed that their school adequately addressed the Holocaust; and most (82%) believed that their school was in compliance with the mandate to teach the Holocaust.
When and Where is the Holocaust being Taught in Illinois High Schools?
At the time of the study, the vast majority of students in Illinois were being exposed to the Holocaust in their junior year within the context of an American history class (88%), the only social studies class required by the state of Illinois (See Table 4). Respondents also indicated that the Holocaust was generally taught in the spring, consistent with the period when American History teachers, within a chronological sequence, would ordinarily reach World War II. In addition to U.S. history classes, the respondents also indicated that the Holocaust was taught in world history classes (55%), and to a lesser degree literature classes (15%). Only 26% of respondents indicated that the Holocaust was being taught in American history advanced placement courses, and in only 9% of European advanced placement courses.
What is being taught about the Holocaust in Illinois High Schools?
Substantial time was being devoted to the teaching of the Holocaust. The mean number of days devoted to the teaching of the Holocaust was about 11 days per school and 8 days per teacher. As seen in Table 5, teachers used this time to cover a broad range of Holocaust related topics, extending from the post-war World War I period through the Final Solution to the post-war trials. An exposure to such a broad array of subject matter should allow students to understand how and why the Holocaust occurred and to place the Holocaust within a historical context.
How is Holocaust being Delivered in Illinois High Schools?
As presented in Table 6, most surveyed teachers also reported utilizing a variety of resources, including films as well as primary and secondary readings. For film, they primarily relied on Schindler’s List (71%), and along with textbooks for their readings (65%), they relied upon The Diary of Anne Frank (43%) and Night (39%). For Holocaust curricular guides, teachers primarily used those provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (32%). The most frequently used CD-Rom was Lest We Forget: a History of the Holocaust and Survivors: Testimony of the Holocaust.
Table 7 represents the aggregate mean score of methods used to teach about the Holocaust (the number 1 represents most frequently used methods and 10 represented least frequently used methods). Traditional methods such as discussion, lectures, reading in the assigned text, and films were the most often used of the ten methods presented. Questionable and possibly detrimental methods for teaching the Holocaust, such as simulations and role playing exercises were less frequently used by teachers. Once taught, evaluation also was largely based on traditional methods of tests (93%), papers (78%), and presentations (56%).
Why is Holocaust Education being taught in Illinois High Schools?
Teachers in Illinois cited a litany of rationales for teaching about the Holocaust. The most frequently cited rationales (93%+) found in Table 8 were the importance of the topic, that it was already part of the curriculum, and that they had a personal interest in the subject. Only 68% of the teachers stated that they taught the Holocaust because it was mandated by the state. Moreover, teachers strongly believed that there were at least nine lessons students could learn from studying the Holocaust. Among these lessons were understanding how and why the Holocaust occurred, encouraging students not to discriminate and stereotype, encouraging students to be critical thinkers, and encouraging students to understand humans’ capacity to do evil.
Due to the paucity of data, previous researchers have been largely working blind as to the current state of Holocaust education. The major findings of this study are provided in Table 9. Based upon the findings of this study, it is now possible to evaluate some of the conjunctures made by previous researchers as well as to assess the overall condition of Holocaust education within a single state. Moreover, our findings offer tantalizing evidence about the efficacy of passing statewide Holocaust mandates in the future. In the discussion that follows we contrast our findings with those found the Holocaust literature as well as highlight some of the more problematic areas of Holocaust education.
Finding #1: Most teachers of the Holocaust were white, Christian, held degrees in history, and have been teaching it for less than ten years or more than 21 years.
One factor that points towards the overall health of Holocaust in Illinois is the diversity of backgrounds of Holocaust teachers. The teachers who responded to the survey were primarily though not exclusively Caucasian. Most of the responding teachers were male, however a significant number were also female. (The discrepancy in gender is undoubtedly more related to the number of male high school social studies rather than any particular sexual predilection towards the teaching of the subject). The population was distributed amongst most age groups, religions, teaching experience and years of teaching the Holocaust. However, the greatest number were Christian, specifically, Protestant. Further, most teachers of the Holocaust were well educated and possessed a Master’s degree, with their field of specialization being history and/or social studies. They were usually certified and tenured. The majority of those teaching the Holocaust had been doing so for 10 years or less, roughly the elapsed time of the mandate, or for 21 years or more.
These findings support those of Evelyn Holt’s (2001) in her study of Indiana’s Holocausts teachers. She also found that a significant percentage of teachers of the Holocaust were relatively new to the teaching field, teaching the Holocaust for 10 years or less, or had been teaching it for more than 20 years (p. 43). Moreover, like the teachers in Indiana, a significant percentage of Illinois’ teachers cited personal readings as one of their sources of information about the Holocaust (p. 45). However, a greater percentage of teachers in Illinois report learning about the Holocaust in undergraduate and graduate courses than those in Indiana (p. 50).
Finding # 2. With significant time devoted to Holocaust education, a wide array of topics is being taught in Illinois high schools.
Based upon the results of our study, perhaps the greatest indicator of the health of Holocaust education was the time devoted to the subject and subjects being covered. The mean number of days devoted to the teaching of the Holocaust was about 11 days per school and 8 days per teacher. This was greater than the number of days stipulated by two previous and rudimentary surveys conducted by the Illinois Department of Education (Ellison, 2002, p. 19). As was the case in Haynes (1997) and Crouch’s studies (1994) concerning university instructors, instructors in Illinois indicated that they covered a broad range of Holocaust related topics. Though they tended to focus on the concentration camp and death camp experiences, they also addressed many phases of the Holocaust, from the Nazi rise to power to the post-war trials. Along with teaching the more horrific aspects of the Holocaust, teachers place the Holocaust within a historical context.
Finding 3. Most students receive Holocaust education in American History in the junior year. However, students taking advanced placement classes receive appreciably less instruction on the Holocaust then those in the regular program. Furthermore, Holocaust education is introduced into over fifty percent of the World History classes.
Frampton (1989), Winkler (personal communication), and Holt (2001) found in their studies that the Holocaust is primarily taught in history and/or literature classes. Results of our analyses indicated that Holocaust education in Illinois was generally taking place in an American history courses during students’ junior year. Most students in Illinois’ high schools were exposed to the Holocaust, because American history is the only state required history course. Generally, the Holocaust was taught in the springtime, consistent with the time frame when teachers, within a chronological sequence, would ordinarily reach World War II. However, in addition to U.S. history classes, the respondents also indicated that the Holocaust was taught in World History classes and literature classes. The Holocaust is a subject that is less often addressed in advanced placement courses than regular American history courses (26%). It may well be that the number of topics required in an advanced placement course lessens the attention that can be devoted to any single topic, such as the Holocaust. In short, advanced placement courses allow for breadth of study but not necessarily depth.
Placing Holocaust instruction in American history, a course required for graduation, certainly aids in the exposure of more students to the Holocaust, however, it does point to one of the problematic areas in Holocaust education: American history is not the natural home for the Holocaust. America’s role in the Holocaust was secondary, not primary. The Holocaust more closely fits within a course on European History, a non-required course. It is hard to imagine how students can truly understand the underpinnings of the Holocaust without having first studied the long and extensive role that anti-Semitism played within the context of European history.
Moreover, if the Holocaust continues to be taught within the context of American history in Illinois, results of study indicate that increased attention needs to be paid to American inaction, rather than action, during the Holocaust. After all, American soldiers did not seek to liberate concentration camps, they only stumbled upon them. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on topics such as the Evian Conference (16%), the ship St. Louis (36%), and the refusal to bomb Auschwitz (39%), so students understand that America’s role as “liberator” was secondary to America’s role as “bystander” during the Holocaust, or to paraphrase David Wyman’s (1984), America’s “Abandonment of the Jews”.
A second danger in teaching the Holocaust within the context of American history relates to teaching the Holocaust during the same year as slavery, America’s most pernicious institution. The two subjects, the Holocaust and slavery, are not comparable either in magnitude or purpose. Slaves, though brutally mistreated, were a financial asset, and were generally kept alive. The goal of the Holocaust was different. As stated by Yehuda Bauer (2001), the case of the Jews was the most extreme form of genocide ever attempted in history, because its goal was not the partial but the total annihilation of a people (p. 56). By teaching the Holocaust in the same year as slavery, teachers risk minimizing the evils of slavery, and at the same time trivializing the Holocaust. In short, they risk doing an injustice to both subjects. Concomitantly, by teaching the Holocaust and slavery in the same year, educators risk driving an even greater wedge between the Jewish and African- American communities than already exists today because it leads to a potentially misleading discussion about who suffered more—the Jews or the African-Americans? As stated in the Teacher’s Resource Book provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (1993): “One cannot presume that the horror of an individual, family, or community destroyed by the Nazis was any greater than experienced by victims of other genocides” (p. 3).
Finding # 4. Teachers use traditional methods of discussion, lectures, and questions on the final examination deliver and test their lessons on the Holocaust.
As was the case with Holt’s (2001) study of Indiana teachers, teachers in Illinois reported using traditional methods in teaching the Holocaust including discussions, lectures, and films in combination with reading of assigned texts to teach about the Holocaust, rather than relying on questionable and possibly detrimental simulations and role playing exercises as some researchers have feared. Also, as was the case with Holt’s study (2001), we found that once taught Illinois teachers largely relied upon traditional methods for evaluation including discussions, tests/quizzes, and writing assignments.
Though the methodological results of our survey point towards a more traditional approach in the teaching of the Holocaust, the results of our study indicated that there may be a tendency in Illinois high schools to place the Holocaust within a universalist rather than a particularist framework. Proponents of the universalist position, including Franklin Littel, Michael Berenbaum, and Henry Friedlander, do not view Holocaust education as an end in itself, but a means to deal with a broader umbrella of issues, including bigotry, racism and intolerance. With the univeralist approach to the Holocaust, the Holocaust is subsumed under the topic of intolerance and stereotyping. It is viewed as having similarities to other genocides, such as the genocides of Armenians and Native Americans. Students are taught that the best way to counter future genocides is through learning tolerance of others. The Facing History Program is undoubtedly the best example of a curricula geared towards the universalist approach.
Proponents of the particularist position, including Lucy Dawidowicz and Deborah Lipstadt, view Holocaust education as an end onto itself. They see the Holocaust as a unique historical phenomenon that cannot be compared to any other event in history. Though it may be true that the Holocaust stemmed from intolerance, it was an intolerance of a specific type, namely, antisemitism. To the particularists, to only approach the Holocaust from the viewpoint of intolerance begs the question of why the Jews, as opposed to other minorities, were singled out for total annihilation by the Nazis. Therefore, for the particularists, it is critical for students, not just to explore intolerance, but to delve into the long history of persecution of Jews by the Christianity and the Church. It is only through an understanding the long and tortuous history of religious persecution that can students grasp the fertile environment that allowed for the growth of the “scientific” racial antisemitism that reached a crescendo in Nazi Germany. For the particularists, better not teach the Holocaust than to misconstrue its meaning through false analogies. As pointed out by Dawidowicz (1990), the particularist position represents a special dilemma for public school teachers:
“How do teachers who may themselves be believing Christians explain this history from observant Christian homes? How will parents react when their children tell them what they have learned about Christian persecution of Jews (p. 27)”?
Since the Church’s response to the Holocaust and the role of Martin Luther, who became a rabid antisemite in his later years when Jews refused to convert to Protestantism, was only addressed by 54 and 50 percent of the respondents in Illinois’s high school, respectively, it may well be the case that teachers in Illinois are trying to evade some of the more thorny religious issues. It is understandable that public school educators in Illinois might feel pressured to lean towards the universalistic approach because this approach puts the Holocaust into a more acceptable and palatable format, one that will not make “waves” with parents, students, teachers, or administrators. However, as difficult as antisemitism may be to teach given the background of both presenters and audience, teachers must address the Church’s role in the Holocaust in a way that enlightens but does not assault. That is, teachers must find a way to balance the universalistic and particularistic approaches.
Finding 5. Schindler’s List, the course textbook, the Diary of Anne Frank, Night are the most widely used materials by teachers teaching about the Holocaust.
As was the case in Fischman (1996) and Holts’ (2001) studies, instructors in Illinois largely depended on the texts of Night and the Diary of Anne Frank to teach about the Holocaust, and as was the case with Stein’s (personal communication) and Fischmans’ (1996) studies, “Schindler’s List” served as Illinois teachers most important film resource.
The dependence upon the Diary and Schinder’s List, in particular,indicates that teachers in Illinois might be falling into the trap of “Americanizing” the Holocaust. Psychologically, the study of the Holocaust can be devastating. In studying the Holocaust, students are required to directly confront the face of evil, thereby, ending their innocence. Moreover, the teaching of the Holocaust raises potentially dangerous and subversive questions because teachers, implicitly, if not explicitly raise questions about fundamentally accepted cultural truths. Students learn that governments lie, judges conspire, majorities err, writers distort, scientists falsify, Ph.D.’s along with doctors commit mass murder, and parents may be loving at night and murderers during the day. They learn that traditional notions such as progress, predictability, rationality, and the value of education, the foundations of western civilization may not constitute “absolute truths.” After studying the Holocaust, students might well ask difficult questions: why listen to authority, why attend institutions dedicated to higher learning, why hope for the future of mankind, why believe in a God, or perhaps most dangerous, why bother to live at all? Schwartz (1990) notes:
Certainly, the Holocaust is an unsettling subject, one that seriously questions basic assumptions about our society and its values. It challenges our faith in progress, technology, and education. Taught correctly, the subject should confuse, disturb, and frustrate students. It should dispel the tidy but inaccurate impression that Western civilization has steadily progressed through the ages, that technology has always served the cause of progress, and those who perpetuated the crime were uneducated hooligans. It raises the question of whether, after Auschwitz, it is still possible to maintain faith in progress and belief in God. Students should be disturbed to learn that Hitler’s extermination policy was made possible only by employing the tools of modern technology, that among Hitler’s accomplices were architects, doctors, lawyers, and psychiatrists, and that a large percentage of those responsible for the death camps held Ph.D. degrees. Youngsters should question how such destruction could be wrought by a society that was a product of the Enlightenment. (pp. 101-102)
In short, the teaching of the Holocaust, as observed by Blu Greenberg (1989), may be subversive to young minds because it “ends their innocence” (p. 239).
To counteract these dangers, scholars have expressed a concern that educators might fall prey to a phenomenon termed the “Americanization” of the Holocaust. Through the Americanization of the Holocaust, the negative and dangerous impact is softened by treating the Holocaust like a made-for television movie; it is given a happy ending. Emphasis is no longer placed upon the unimaginable horror and piles of corpses but rather on the more positive aspects of the Holocaust, such as the heroes and rescuers.
In Illinois, this tendency to Americanize the Holocaust is not only evident in the sources used by the vast majority of teachers, namely The Diary of Anne Frank and the film Schindler’s List, but the degree to which educators in Illinois are emphasizing the role of resistance during the Holocaust, particularly the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (69%). Finally, this tendency is evident in that a majority of teachers in Illinois are teaching the creation of the State of Israel in conjunction with the Holocaust (86%). Though all these more “positive” elements must be taught because indeed they occurred, they must not be allowed to obscure the historical realities: less than one percent of Europeans were rescuers; most Jews did not and could not resist against the Nazis; though all Jews were victims, most were not heroic; the vast majority of European Jewry did not survive the Holocaust, including over one million children; and the creation of the state of Israel is far too complex a subject to be defined solely by the Holocaust
In particular, the film Schindler’s List and the Diary of Anne Frank can be invaluable resources for teachers, but they should be taught within their proper context. Teachers should indicate to students the historical inaccuracies within the film of Schindler’s List. For example, the film never makes clear that, in the early Nazi period, Schindler was directly responsible for the confiscation of Jewish owned businesses and, as a result, Yad Vashem’s decision to include his name among the Righteous Among the Nations created a firestorm of controversy within Israel itself. Moreover, in studying Schindler’s List, students must be made of the aware of the fact that the final speech given by Schindler in his factory to his workers was historical fiction, and that all the munitions produced by his factory were not necessarily defective. Also misleading in the film is the post-war concept that the survivors made an easy transition from the past to the present, as they move from black and white to color, at the end of the film. As stated by Tom Segev (1991): “The Holocaust survivors came from another world and, to the end of their days, they were its prisoners…They did not escape from the nightmare of their pasts” (p. 158).
Similar cautions must be used with students when reading or showing the film of Anne Frank. Teachers should indicate to students that all traces of Judaism are virtually vanquished from the film meaning that the film would have more universal appeal, thus resulting in more ticket sales. In both the film version and the novel of the diary, Anne’s celebrated refrain of “I believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart” must be tempered by her more pessimistic thoughts only two sentences later in the diary, which are completely deleted in the film, when she says: “I see the world being transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions” (see Cynthia Oznick 2000 for further discussion about misuse of Anne’s diary). In reality, Anne’s diary ends just when her direct confrontation with the Holocaust begins. One wonders if Anne would have expressed optimism one year later, after she entered planet Auschwitz, watched her mother “go up the chimney,” marched from Poland to Germany in the winter with little food and clothing, only then to be incarcerated in Bergen-Belsen, where the bits of food she smuggled from her oldest and dearest friend for her dying sister, Margot, were stolen by other half-crazed malnourished prisoners, and in the end, she faced death alone stripped of dignity, family, and friends. . The desire to find some good in the Holocaust, for teacher and student alike, cannot be allowed to distort the overwhelming darkness of the Holocaust’s historiography. That is, the intense desire to find something good in the Holocaust might reveal more about our needs than about the Holocaust itself.
Finding # 6 Teachers teach about the Holocaust for a variety of reasons. The fact that the subject is mandated by the state is not their most important reason for teaching the subject.
Teachers in Illinois cited a variety of reasons for teaching about the Holocaust including the importance of the topic, that it was part of the curricula, and personal interest and they cited a number of important lessons to be learned from the Holocaust, including how and why it happened, encouraging students not to discriminate and stereotype, encouraging students to be critical thinkers, and encouraging students to understand humans’ capacity to evil. As was the case with our study, Stein (personal communication) in his informal study of Holocaust education within Illinois’ high schools found that most teachers did not desire any additional materials, including a state sponsored curricula guide. The majority of Illinois teachers did not want a state required Holocaust curriculum. Only 68% of teachers responded that they teach about the Holocaust because it is mandated by the State.
Friedlander (1979), Totten (2001), Fischman (1996) and Stein (unpublished article) expressed concern about the current state of Holocaust education because of a lack of clarity in the rationales for teaching the Holocaust. In our survey, teachers cited a litany of rationales for teaching about the Holocaust. Even more numerous were the lessons cited by respondents to be learned from the Holocaust. For teachers experienced in teaching the Holocaust, the multitude of reasons for teaching the Holocaust might be viewed as an opportunity; for less experienced teachers, the multitude of reasons could be viewed as confounding.
Finding # 7. Schools in Illinois are in compliance with the mandate to teach the Holocaust.
Winkler (personal communication) in his study of Holocaust education in the state of New Jersey found that most teachers responded favorably to the Holocaust mandate and that most teachers felt comfortable and confident in teaching the Holocaust. The same was true of Holt’s study (2001). Most respondents in Illinois favored educational mandates, specifically the mandate to teach about the Holocaust, and felt they were academically prepared to teach about it. According to the respondents, the role of Holocaust education was secure within their schools and that it would continue to be taught even if they left. Most respondents did not believe that too much emphasis was placed upon the Holocaust and that their schools were in compliance with the mandate to teach “a unit” of study about the Holocaust.
The Illinois mandate requires that schools teach a unit on the Holocaust, but not necessarily that every student should learn about it. Given this stipulation, it seems that the schools in Illinois were largely in compliance with the letter of the law. A unit of study on the Holocaust was taught in at least 92 percent of high schools in Illinois, while 8.5 percent reported that unit was not taught. Some of this 8.5 percent of schools could be “explained away” because of confusion regarding the definition of “a unit of study.”
Finding # 8. The efficacy of passing state-wide mandates
Ultimately, there will never be a way to judge the impact of Illinois’ mandate to teach the Holocaust because there was no base-line study of Holocaust education in Illinois conducted before the passage of the mandate. It is also true that only 68 percent of the teachers reported that they teach the Holocaust because of the mandate. However, given the fact that a high percentage of schools include Holocaust education within their curriculum, that the vast majority of teachers in Illinois are familiar with the existence of a mandate, that a large percentage of teachers of the Holocaust in Illinois fall within the experience range of 1-10 years, the amount of time in which the Holocaust mandate has been in effect, it does seem, with all of its flaws, the Illinois Holocaust mandate has impacted the emphasis placed upon Holocaust education. Holt (2001) in her analysis of the Indiana’s teachers found that only 20 percent of teachers in Indiana were familiar with Indiana’s resolution encouraging the teaching of the Holocaust (p. 51), meaning that mandates might well impact emphasis placed upon Holocaust education to a greater extent than legislative resolutions that only encourage the teaching of the Holocaust.
Yet in formulating the conceptual framework of those mandates, legislators might want to consider some of other findings in this study. Rather than only stressing the importance of “never again” as the central rationale for teaching the Holocaust, the focus should be broadened to include rationales such as understanding how and why the Holocaust occurred, developing critical thinking skills, and understanding how one individual can make a difference. It may be that, given the findings of this study, a more specific phrase than a “unit of study” should be used, because this phrase is too vague. When a former superintendent of Illinois schools was asked how he interpreted “a unit” of study, “he responded that it could mean anything from mentioning the word Holocaust to devoting several weeks of study to the Holocaust” (personal communication).
Legislators might also consider a change in wording about the delivery instrument. Perhaps, future mandates might incorporate the phrase that “all students must learn” rather than “all schools must teach”, to be certain that the intention of the mandate becomes a reality. According to the survey results, only 59.5 percent of schools reported that a unit of study on the Holocaust is required for graduation. The Holocaust is either being taught in elective courses not required for graduation or many teachers in required courses have chosen not to teach the subject, which seems to violate the intent of a mandate: to teach the Holocaust to “all” and not just “some”. In addition, states might wish to consider whether some form of censure should be included in the mandate for those schools not in compliance with the mandate. Finally, politicians might want to consider funding Holocaust mandates in the future because as will be demonstrated in the accompanying article, “The Emphasis placed on Holocaust Education in Illinois” teacher training, perhaps even more than statewide mandates, might be the single most important factor impacting the extent and quality of Holocaust education.
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