Blogs > HNN > Centrist Propaganda: Holocaust Education and African-American Studies in New Jersey

Feb 12, 2006 8:25 pm

Centrist Propaganda: Holocaust Education and African-American Studies in New Jersey

When it comes to pedagogical malpractice, the malfeasances of the farther reaches of the left and the right are as easy to spot as they are to criticize. The right has its anti-sexual conception of sex education (aka"abstinence") and intelligent design theory masquerading as biology (aka creationism); the left, by contrast, likes to indoctrinate children in the gospels of environmentalism, relativism, and indiscriminate toleration. The left gets a little more of a free pass than the right, but neither goes entirely without criticism.

What then of the center? Is there such a thing as centrist indoctrination in the schools? Can an enforced commitment to the middle-of-the-road mainstream possibly be a bad thing for pedagogy? Two articles in the New Jersey section of today's New York Times suggest that the answer is an emphatic"yes."

The first one, "Diary of a Teenage Hit," seems innocuous enough at first glance. Here we learn that between September 2005 and Feb. 26 of this year, 9,000 students from 28 New Jersey schools will have flocked to the Paper Mill Playhouse of Millburn, NJ to see matinee performances of"The Diary of Anne Frank." Why the sudden interest?, you ask.

Part of the reason for this large degree of interest from schools is because New Jersey is one of seven states that mandates that Holocaust and genocide studies be taught at some point in their elementary or secondary schools' curriculum.

Many, if not most, of New Jersey public schools fulfill the academic requirement by offering courses at the middle school level, like the"Lessons From the Holocaust" class that Mary Vazquez teaches as an eighth-grade elective at Millburn Middle School. She said the course was always overbooked, and that two-thirds of the students in it are Jewish.

"They have a great interest in learning about their heritage," she said.
As for the content of what they learn, this passage conveys the aspiration:
Actually, the very nature of theater seems in total harmony with the desired approach to the teaching of the Holocaust. Dr. Paul B. Winkler, the executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education in Trenton, said in a telephone interview that Holocaust and genocide study must be"much more affective learning than cognitive learning." In other words, more about caring, understanding and feeling than about facts and figures.
Students learning to emote about Anne Frank on the public dime: who could possibly argue with that?

Turn the page and you find an AP story called"Trying to Make Black History More Than February," which describes Newark assemblyman William Payne's struggle to mandate the teaching of black history in New Jersey's schools. (The article appeared on p. 7 of the New Jersey section of New York Times today, and the front page of the Times of Trenton yesterday, but is archived at neither site. An online version is available under the"news clippings" section of the Amistad Commission site, San Diego News Tribune, Feb. 9.) The"mandate," as you might imagine, takes the form of a legal imperative:
New Jersey's 2002 law created an Amistad Commission whose members write lesson plans, organize educational events and train teachers—all focused on black history. The law says each school board"shall incorporate" black history at all grade levels.
In practice, the imperative takes the following charming form:
Ms. Jackson-Weaver [executive director of the Amistad Commission] now is surveying New Jersey's 593 districts on their compliance with the law."Just in case you didn't know," she told districts in a letter,"we do have an Amistad law on the books and it's necessary to have African-American history in the curriculum….
Later in the article we're told:
Last week, New Jersey's education commissioner sent another reminder to school districts to urge educators to implement the law."
The use of legalized compulsion to teach students about the plight of African-Americans as victims of legalized compulsion: who could argue with that?

I could. Whatever their intentions, here is what one actually learns from these probably well-intentioned centrist efforts at indoctrination:

1. The teaching of history is to be driven essentially by ethnic and political interests and/or demography, then mandated by law.

Thus: Jews want the Holocaust taught. Jews have a powerful lobby in New Jersey (plus powerful friends in higher education). Hence Jews get what they want. African-Americans want black history. African-Americans have a powerful lobby in New Jersey (plus powerful friends in higher education). They get what they want. Message to other ethnic groups: If you want your group's history taught, go out and get a lobby (plus powerful friends in higher education); lobby the legislatures; then set up a"Commission" and step onto the gravy train.

Prediction: it won't be long before we hear from aggrieved Native Americans, Hispanics, Chinese-, Japanese- and Korean-Americans, Russian- and Ukrainian-Americans, Armenians, Palestinians and/or Indians demanding their"fair share" of the genocide/oppression studies curriculum. As this happens, watch historiographical and pedagogical standards yield slowly but surely to ethnic pressure, and watch each group jockey against (or cut deals with) the others for power. Meanwhile, watch the history curriculum vanish from sight, swallowed by ethnic course-trading and -bickering. (One more prediction: Wait for hitherto unheard-of confusions to sprout in the new generation of students educated by this approach, produced by a curriculum motivated to some degree by ethnic cheerleading, aka"learning about one's own heritage." I think, for instance, of my own students' bizarre but persistent habit of conflating the words"ethics" with"ethnics" on the assumption that the two words are equivalent.)

2. Difficult epistemological and pedagogical questions are to be ruled out of court as violating the complacent law-mandated centrist status quo.

For instance: Why exactly do high school students need to be exposed to"genocide studies" as opposed to plain old history? Why can't students learn about the Holocaust as part of a unit on World War II, instead of reducing all of World War II to the diary of Anne Frank? For that matter, why can't students learn about"black history" in a regular American history course as distinct from learning about"black history" as such?

Continuing with the ethnic theme: Why is the Holocaust Commission's work so heavily tilted toward the Nazi extermination of the Jews, as opposed, say, to the Soviet extermination of the kulaks? How is the term"genocide" to be defined, anyway, and why isn't the crime of genocide reducible to mass murder? If we're going to study genocide, why not study massacre in the bargain and study something more controversial than the Holocaust—like Deir Yasin, Sabra and Shatila or the East-West Pakistan Civil War of 1971? If that's"too controversial," then why introduce"genocide" as a subject of study for schoolchildren in the first place?

Remarkably, for all of that hifallutin papers and conferences that the Holocaust and Amistad Commissions have funded, very little of their contents answers any of the preceding questions. On the other hand, if you urgently need to know, say, about the relevance of Emmanuel Levinas's thought to public education at the K-12 level, you'll be relieved to find what you were looking for. An axiom: When funding precedes answers to fundamental questions, expect the questions to go unasked and unanswered.

3. Appeal to students' emotions so as to avoid teaching very much of substance; the substanceless is after all the"uncontroversial," and only the uncontroversial is compatible with bipartisan funding.

Precisely because none of the preceding questions is dealt with, it is downright offensive to be told by the executive director of the Holocaust Commission that the Holocaust is to be taught to schoolchildren on an"affective" rather than" cognitive" basis, so that emotions are to be manipulated but little information imparted. The irony of teaching children the evils of totalitarianism by induced mindlessness is apparently lost on these people, as is the irony of a legally"mandated" curriculum designed to teach them about the evils of compulsion.

I'm reminded in this connection of Hannah Arendt's description of Adolph Eichmann:
The longer one listened to him [Eichmann], the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think….No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality itself. (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 49).
One of those safeguards was the cognition-destroying cliché, the clichés as Arendt puts it,"by which the people [of Germany] had lived for twelve years."
Eichmann's mind was filled to the brim with such [clichéd] sentences. [And yet] his memory proved to be quite unreliable about what had actually happened; in a rare moment of exasperation, Judge Landau asked the accused:"What can you remember?" (EJ, p. 53).
Remember this set of passages the next time you encounter a student fresh out of high school who can parrot clichés to you about Anne Frank or Rosa Parks, but can't remember anything else about World War II, the Civil War, Reconstruction or the civil rights movement. Could there conceivably be a connection between the substitution of cliches for history and students' inability to remember how historical events actually took place?

Don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that Holocaust or Amistad Commissions are about to make"desk murderers" of New Jersey's schoolchildren. My point is that they are doing a questionable job of imparting the capacity to think about the very topics they claim to be teaching. At the end of the day, it is worth asking whether history education is a form of non-cognitive ethnic appeasement, or something else, and if the latter, how it is to be imparted by clumsy laws implemented by educators skilled prinicipally in the skills of indoctrination. It is also worth asking whether history can be taught by legal edict, or whether there is something morally, pedagogically and politically problematic about the idea of compelling people to teach about the nature of rights violations in history.

In my next post, I'll put up a few inadvertently hilarious examples of history education gone awry. Ask yourself whether the failures arise from an overemphasis on cognition, and whether they can be solved by ethnically-driven agendas promoted by state-subsidized Commissions.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

My experience tallies with yours. I occasionally have given my philosophy students primer history lessons on WWII and slavery, and they listen with rapt interest. Christopher Hitchens has an excellent piece on the teaching of history where he reports the same thing with respect to his classes on American literature.

I'm currently teaching Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem here at John Jay and showing the film version of the Eichmann trial ("The Specialist"): my students are riveted by the material. But most of them have never heard of the Nuremberg Trials, which makes me wonder just what is going on their history classes. They certainly want to learn history; the question is, what are they being taught? And how?

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

There are many questionable claims in your post.

First, if you agree that ethnic groups can manipulate the history curriculum, and agree that powerful Jewish lobbies are among those groups, your disagreement with me is unclear. Having granted that Jewish lobbies lobby for the inclusion of the Holocaust, you then say that Holocaust education is not in the schools because of that lobbying. I find your combination of claims hard to make sense of. If the lobbies are lobbying, and legislation is being passed as a result of their lobbying, and the legislation mandates Holocaust education of a certain form, how can Holocaust education of precisely that form not be in the schools because of the lobbying?

Second, you keep insisting that the Holocaust is "unfathomable" in words. If that were really true, what would be the point in studying it? If something is unfathomable, it can't be understood. If it can't be understood, how can it be taught--in words? To say that the Holocaust is "unfathomable" is actually to undermine the whole point of teaching it. A

s someone who teaches the Holocaust at the college level, I see nothing in it that is literally "unfathomable." To speak that way is to offer a counsel of despair and play to irrationality. As the author Leonard Peikoff nicely puts it, "We dare not brush aside unexplained a horror such as Nazism" (The Ominous Parallels, p. 21). Peikoff's book seeks to explain the Holocaust and in my view does a fairly good job of it.

Third, you keep insisting that I have slighted the uniqueness of the Holocaust as an event. But I haven't said a word on that topic, and nothing I've said implies that it is or isn't unique. All I've said is that it has to be understood in the context of the War. But unique things happen in the middle of wars, so studying it that way doesn't imply it's not unique (or that it is).

Anyway, even if the Holocaust were regarded on par with some other atrocity, that wouldn't strengthen or weaken Israel. Part of the historical case for Israel turns on the need for a sanctuary for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. But the survivors would have needed a sanctuary regardless of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. The survivor of a unique tragedy is no more or less deserving of sanctuary than one of a non-unique one. So uniqueness is neither here nor there.

I find it absolutely incredible, however, that as a history teacher you are unconcerned about the non-contextual nature of students' knowledge of history--and of their ignorance of history! I am not saying they should know as much as I do. I am saying that they should know that there is more to WWII than Anne Frank. They should know basic political and military history. That is not too much to ask.

You claim that students "can't" learn those things. I don't see why not. My friends and I learned them in public school in sixth grade.

If (as you say) the schools are staffed with people who can't teach real history, that suggests we need better schools and better teachers. It doesn't invalidate my argument.

As for the issue of compulsion, I myself think that all schooling should be private and uncompelled. So in this post, I was focusing on one egregious act of compulsion without discussing the problems inherent in compulsion as such.

As it happens, I am against all compulsion in education, with one exception: I would compel parents who refused to educate their child to do so--at their own expense. But the compulsion involved here is more-than-average, which is why I commented on it.

There is still one outstanding issue in our exchange, which is: do you think that the teaching of black history as envisioned by the Amistad Commission is equivalent to "Afrocentricity"? Even as a critic of the Commission, I wouldn't go that far, and I find it strange that you insist on going that far when it comes to the Amistad Commission, but have no qualms when it comes to the Holocaust Commission. I have yet to see why the two Commissions should be seen as so radically different. I could easily imagine an Amistad Comm version of your argument, applied to slavery:

Slavery is unfathomable and unique, and the attempt to contextualize it is a right-wing plot to weaken affirmative action and the case for reparations!
I'd say the same thing to such a person as I said to you about the Holocaust. But I'm interested in what you would say if confronted with that claim.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

We're actually agreeing. My point is not whether the Holocaust should be taught as a singular event or not (that's a separate issue), but whether it should be taught in the larger context of World War II or not. What I object to is teaching the Holocaust as though it had no connection to World War I, the rise of totalitarianism, Chamberlain-Halifax's appeasement, the Nazi offensives, the Allied counter-response, etc. I frequently encounter students who literally know only two facts about World War II: Pearl Harbor and Anne Frank. The historical conclusion they draw: (1) World War II began in December 1941 in Hawaii, and (2) the Nazis are bad. I think we can do better than that, and New Jersey's version of Holocaust education doesn't help.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I'm starting to get used to this, but your comments are based on what seem to me willful misreadings of what I wrote.

I didn't say that the Holocaust shouldn't be taught. But it shouldn't be taught as disconnected from the wider context of World War II, and it is. It is also questionable whether such a thing as "genocide studies" should be taught at the secondary school level to students who have not yet learned basic history. I am not denying that the Holocaust was shattering, nor did I imply it.

But then slavery was pretty shattering too, and you seem to be equating the study of it with "Afrocentrism." Anyway, I would say the same thing about slavery as I said about the Holocaust. It has to be taught in a broader historical context than a focus on "black history". Are you actually saying that the study of the slave trade is mere jingoistic ethnic chauvinism?

It is as imperative to study slavery and abolition as it is to study the Holocaust. That doesn't mean that either subject requires state-subsidized Commissions or ethnically-driven laws to be taught well.

I didn't say that interest in the Holocaust was driven by Jewish lobbies. What I said was that the NJ legislation establishing a Holocaust Commission was passed as a result of efforts by Jewish groups lobbying for it. This is just a bald statement of fact, and if you have a problem with it, I suggest you argue with reality, not me.

Jason KEuter - 2/14/2006

I apologize for posting this in this section, but when I try to respond to Mr. Khawaja's comments in the other section, my user name doesn't come up.

I do not disagree with your contention that ethnic groups can manipulate the political process to mandate compulsary education (ethnic jjingoism) about their particular ethnic group; but the holocaust is not a part of most schools curriculum because of such efforts. For the most part, all schools have this in their curriculum as a matter of tradition. Unfortunately, as time has passed, the vital importance of the holocaust as a TRULY UNIQUE and UNPRECEDENTED AND UNFATHOMABLE HORROR no longer rests as heavy on the intellectual's conscience as it once did. Thus, every school I've ever worked in teaches the Diary of Anne Frank with the same interest and vigor that they teach "Where the Red Fern Grows". In part, this is due to the very ethnic politicing you describe, but it is also due to the disturbing "normalization" of the holocaust, which simply regards it as another of history's great tragedies. That conclusion can only be held if one is ignorant of both the holocaust and other such "tragedies." Words can't do the holocaust justice, but it packs all preceding human tragedies into one decade long period and then goes into a dimension that can't be fathomed.

I won't argue with the fact that powerful Jewish lobbies work to ensure holocaust education, but I would point out that they do so in an era of ascendent anti-semitism, aided and abetted by a strident and significant portion of the historical profession desperate to find equivalent horrors and thus weaken Israel for reasons we won't go into here.

The problem I have is with your normalization of the holocaust (a compulsory subject of study, in the case of New Jersey, at the behest of an ethnic lobby group). The holocaust begins your lament of decontextualized and fragmented history (a lament I generally share but blame more on careerist, academic specialization than legislators and pressure groups).

The existence of a pressure group in New Jersey is allowing you to distort the reason so many schools teach the holocaust, reasons that rest with a far broader group than Jewish lobbies or Jews, but was once, more universal. Lamentably, that isn't the case any more.

I am not as concerned with the students who can't contextualize history, or don't know as much about it as you do. As a public school teacher, I know the reason so many of them don't know the things you wish they knew is because:

1. most students can't learn those things

2. the schools are not staffed with too many of the kind of people who can't accept those limitations.

I thus share your concerns about historical ignorance but more within the historical profession itself and among teacher's of history and other elites who are arguably more influential than your run of the mill sophomore. If you remove "compulsion' from historical education (and I'm sure most professors reading this know that their existence is as dependent on compulsion as any public school teacher) then you wouldn't have very many history students - certainly not enough to keep all of us history teachers employed.

Part of the reason for the failures you mention among those students who don't know history but could does rest in the compulsive nature about ethnic history as its cumulative effect is largely a guilt trip, which most students naturally reject as implicit criticism.

Jason Pappas - 2/14/2006

Yes, that’s an excellent point and we are agreeing.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/14/2006

: frequently encounter students who literally know only two facts about World War II: Pearl Harbor and Anne Frank."

I think that's a slight exagerration, but I fear it's only slight. The sad thing is that many students are interested in World War II (and slavery and the Civil War, for that matter ). A significant number want to know something about how the war started , the way it was waged, and the aftermath. HOw deep they want to go and how hard they will work are individual things, but most want at least a coherent story or (dare I say) narrative to help them put it together.

Jason Pappas - 2/14/2006

I agree with your article. I’d argue that your epistemological points (and points about cognitive development or the lack of) are by far the most important.

Of course, most will focus on your Holocaust remarks. I also agree with your point about the Holocaust but would temper it somewhat.

I’d argue that there is a special horror in seeing a once civilized nation descend into barbarity and kill most members of a demographic group that not only wasn’t a threat but which contributed so many men and women of achievement. As a Greek of Anatolian decent, I’m well aware of the other mass slaughters. However, if the rationale is to insure a self-study of Western Civilization, then the Holocaust is particularly important; but it is important as part and parcel of history.

It is only the wider context of our culture and history that enables us to select the Holocaust as an event that can tell us about one strain of Western Civilization, the collectivist authoritarian tradition, which still has influence today even if to a lesser extent. But to rip it out of history, as is often done today, and imply that it is a singularity different in kind from every other systematic mass slaughter in the past and every possible slaughter in the future, would make the Holocaust essentially irrelevant going forward.

Jason KEuter - 2/14/2006

The holocaust is a subject of study in schools because it is rightly regarded as being the greatest moral travesty in human history. It is a pivotal and shattering part of the universal history of man, and while the fact that many ethnic groups feel slighted because of the attention the holocaust receives, almost all events in human histroy pale in significance before it. Interest in it is not driven by powerful Jewish lobbies. It is an imperative problem for mankind.

To pair it with afro-centric curriculum, which is jingoisitic, ethnic chauvisism creates an obscene false equivalence.