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April 23, 2018 8:11 am

Why Holocaust Education Is Desperately Needed in America

avatar by Noah Phillips

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The entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I recently applied for a grant to promote Holocaust education at local middle schools through field trips, an education unit about Holocaust studies, and survivor testimonies. My grant application was rejected, which wasn’t a complete surprise, given the volume and quality of competing applications. 

But I was taken aback by the verbal feedback I received from the grant’s benefactor, who told me something along the lines of: “The Holocaust was a terrible thing, and it should be remembered — but its significance is not as meaningful today. Your project is not something we can turn into an annual occurrence.” 

How could someone minimize the relevance of the Holocaust and trivialize its intergenerational impact? I was stunned.

In response, I began researching the Holocaust education programs implemented by my school and others. In my school  — a private institution with a significant Jewish student population — I expected a robust layering of Holocaust studies across grade levels. Instead, I found one unit on Anne Frank in the middle school and an overview of the Holocaust in the European history elective. This lackluster effort to incorporate Holocaust education into the regular curriculum, along with the lack of any special programming, left me wondering about students’ exposure to genocide studies and the specific case of the Holocaust. 

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Maybe it’s my personal observations and bias, but I imagine that my school’s curriculum is indicative of a larger trend. Per a 2005 report by the Education Commission of the States, Holocaust education is partially mandated in some form by only 17 US states.

Alabama, California, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia have created commissions and task forces on the Holocaust. California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington state have passed laws requiring or encouraging educational programs about the Holocaust as part of the curriculum.

But even in these states, the commissions and task forces are the sole bodies responsible for the implementation of this agenda, and many of the members of the task forces are volunteers.

The report also states that “eight states have statutes that specifically require or encourage instruction of the Holocaust be part of the state education curriculum.” These states have curricula and learning standards for each grade level, with the task of curricula development delegated to educators, policymakers, and higher education content experts. But only the state of New York enforces its policies by reserving “the right to withhold public funds appropriated to schools that do not meet the curriculum requirements.” 

Without any proactive enforcement, what good are these policies? What impact can they have? There’s wiggle room for teachers and educators to eschew Holocaust education, not necessarily out of malignancy, but for convenience or pressure to “cover” major units of studies.

The rationale is understandable: sacrifice this effectively optional state “encouragement” for the more typical school curriculum in preparation for state tests or other components of compulsive education. And this is assuming that teachers at the school level are even made aware of the Holocaust requirements by their supervisors.

There is certainly visible variation in the productivity of the respective state commissions. New Jersey’s commission coordinates hundreds of programs annually for tens of thousands of students in grades K-12, per their 2016 report. But broadly speaking, the legislation around mandated Holocaust studies programs — and the implementation of the curricula — are feeble.

My personal Holocaust education has included my family’s visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, hearing from survivors, reading testimonies, as well as Night by Elie Wiesel, and commemorating the Shoah annually. The Holocaust means more to me than a chapter (or page) in a history textbook. And I hope for Jews and non-Jews across the nation to eventually share this sentiment.

But as of now, it appears that the majority of my generation — the upcoming wave of activists, entrepreneurs, and intrepid thinkers — may never learn about an essential component of American and global history.

Noah Phillips is a young writer with a particular interest in Jewish/Israeli affairs. He writes a column for Elder of Ziyon and is the founder of The Jewish Post, an online Jewish political magazine. Follow him on Twitter @noahaphilli.

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