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Phillips: Is criticism of the failure of Holocaust education valid?

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Auschwitz (WIKIPEDIA)

In recent weeks, much has been written in the press about the perceived failure of educating about the Holocaust. But is this critique about the shortcomings and the so-called muddled state of education fair or even accurate? The answer perhaps lies in how one defines education, the methodologies it employs, and what one perceives as the outcomes. As someone actively engaged in several educational spheres and specializing in teaching about the Holocaust, I would like to contribute the following reflections.

Holocaust education, particularly at the high school level, is about offering a thoughtful and well-planned balance between historically accurate information while engaging learners students in the deeper meanings of history – in other words how the Holocaust happened and why it matters.

Survivor testimony has been an essential component to help students understand how the Holocaust affected individuals, families, and entire communities. Additionally, providing students with core historical information that helps them develop an understanding of the historiography of the Holocaust is another essential component.

It creates the foundation upon which the enduring understandings that can be derived from a study of the Holocaust are established. This requires us as educators to use developmentally and age appropriate material that encourages students to be active learners in the process while respecting that the use of graphic images depicting the horrors of the Holocaust may trigger emotional reactions from some students. Conversely, it may discourage others from wanting to engage critically with the material.

The latter approach was what I experienced in my high school years and it was not until my undergrad when I studied the Holocaust through a literary approach that I felt comfortable engaging with the subject which as it turned out shaped my graduate studies. Being cognizant of the emotional vulnerability of learners should guide the pedagogical choices that educators make.

Similarly, responsible pedagogical methods avoid simulations or any other activity that aims to helps students feel or experience what it was like during the Holocaust. While such endeavors may engage students during the moment they are participating, there is no evidence that it contributes to a deeper learning experience. It may in fact leave students with the false impression that they can comprehend or feel what Holocaust survivors experienced.

Effective and responsible pedagogy provides the framework with which students feel empowered to question how the Holocaust could have happened, to critically analyze the choices that were made, and to arouse their curiosity to want to learn more.

Remembrance is but one element of the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre’s work as a leader in Holocaust education. It is also a critical component in helping provide the human dimension of history; the human face of all that was lost in the Holocaust.

Indeed, the Jewish value of remembering is deeply ingrained in many of the volunteers and speakers affiliated with the centre. However, the work of the Neuberger extends far beyond remembrance and includes exploring issues of civil society, citizenship and democracy, while being infused with a social justice approach that seeks to create a better society, and a better world, for everyone.

Whether it is our professional development seminars for teachers, our public programming throughout the year, our symposia for students, or our Holocaust Educators’ Study Tour, we are guided by the principles that knowledge and thoughtful education is the best counterbalance to unawareness, Holocaust minimalization and denial.

Responsibility for teaching the Holocaust has fallen largely to the Jewish community in the absence of a national strategy to disseminate pedagogical expertise and historical information about the Holocaust. As a result, it has been primarily urban areas across Canada that have benefited from the commitment of their local Jewish community in ensuring that students, educators and the general public have access to relevant Holocaust education resources.

Few national organizations have had the capacity to work interprovincially and the Neuberger centre is proud to have partnered with the Azrieli Foundation whose Holocaust survivor memoir program has been enormously important in ensuring not only that survivor narrative remains accessible, but also is an important educational tool.

Can more be done? Of course, and it must be done.  The Neuberger’s approach rests on the foundation that Holocaust deeply affected the Jewish people, and humanity as a whole. Although anti-Semitism and the Holocaust affects Jews, it will require a concentrated effort from multiple aspects of Canadian society to effectively counter Holocaust denial, distortion, anti-Semitism and a general lack of knowledge about the Holocaust.

Success will require the involvement of all levels of government, religious institutions, cultural, and civic organizations.  In the end, how we as a society values education about the Holocaust and anti-Semitsim will define us as a nation. It will define our Canadian values, and what it means to be a Canadian, regardless of our religious, cultural or ethnic heritage.

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Carson Phillips is the managing director of UJA Federation’s Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto. He is an editorial board member of Prism – An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators and teaches graduate courses on the Holocaust for Gratz College and an undergraduate level Holocaust course at UNB-Saint John.