A common trap that many teachers fall into is assuming that when their students get to them, those students will have learned the same things that they’d learned at that particular age or grade level. For some teachers, this is an honest mistake that they’re not even aware that they’re making; others, however, may not particularly care about all the factors involved in why their students aren’t aware of certain issues, because they view every perceived shortcoming in their students’ knowledge as an excuse to treat them like idiots. I’ve dealt with far too many teachers, both as a student and a teacher myself, who harbour this attitude, and I firmly believe that anyone who treats their students that way has absolutely no business being a teacher.
There are many reasons why the things that get taught in school change over time. The world we live in now is radically different from the world of twenty, or even ten, years ago; just look at how technology has changed how we access information in those time frames, and imagine (if you’ve been out of school for that whole time) how those changes would influence how you’d write a research paper. The political climate in which American education operates is a huge influence on what gets taught in our schools as well, and although this is hardly a new phenomenon, it’s been more visible in recent years, as evidenced by recent controversies about everything from AP US History guidelines to which people get mentioned in history textbooks.
It’s hardly a surprise that history is one of the subject areas most prone to political combat, given its power to influence not just how we see our past, but our present and future as well. Even with an ideal history teacher, who gives their students the tools with which to make their own decisions instead of deigning to make those decisions for their students, there’s only so much material that can be taught over a term, and those choices are bound to influence the students who take that class, albeit to a lesser degree than the unscrupulous history teachers who tell their students what to think about the material they cover.
I made my first trip to the Holocaust Memorial Center in suburban Detroit when I was twelve years old, just as I was beginning to form my first real political understandings thanks to the rap music I was listening to back then. The treatment of minorities has always been a core component of my political beliefs, and even though I’d studied the Holocaust in earlier social studies classes, the exhibits at that memorial provided a kind of accessibility similar to what 1980’s rap music was teaching me about the plight of African-Americans in this country. It was a very affecting experience for me, and definitely deepened my early development as a political person; if you’ve never been to a Holocaust memorial before, I strongly suggest that you go to one as soon as you can.
I remember being told at the time that some teachers and schools just didn’t teach the Holocaust to their students. I think the impulse back then was to protect young children from learning about humanity’s capacity for evil; much like the modern movement to remove racial slurs from classic literature like Mark Twain’s novels, the root impulse may be based on the best of intentions, but it does children a disservice not only by treating them as incapable of handling difficult material, but also by not alerting them to the real dangers that are out there when humans give in to their darkest desires. Without knowledge of the worst massacres and genocides in history, people may live their entire lives believing that such atrocities could never happen, either back then or right now.
Not teaching young people about the Holocaust would be horrible enough on its own, but the reality in America right now is that thanks to the continued war on public education through the demands of the political-corporate standardized testing regime, more and more students aren’t even taking history classes, or at least not as many as they used to. If students aren’t even taught the most basic of facts about how the world they live in became how it is right now, then they can hardly be expected to comprehend the dangers of humanity’s worst moments potentially being relived in their own lifetimes.
The fact that the rich and powerful — the people who have benefited the most from the rising and falling tides of history — are the ones whose children are most likely to have comprehensive history classes in their schools is no coincidence. They are the ones who are most responsible for the decimation of America’s public school system, to enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of those who were already much less fortunate. They are the ones whose educations gave them not only the greatest understanding of how to manipulate our economic and political systems for their own gain, but also how to manipulate their victims into turning against one another instead of fighting their oppressors. They are the ones working hardest to be portrayed as Nietzchian übermenschen today, especially through their manipulation of media and culture, because they know that a population without historical literacy and comprehension is more likely to lionize them to the point of making them historical figures themselves.
More to the point, these are the same people whose habitual lambasting of millennials long ago reached a level where comic examples (killing Applebee’s, spending all their money on avocado toast, et cetera) became iconic. The danger in this comedy, though, is that it masks the malevolence of the people making those accusations. Above and beyond the superficial concern of these people being seemingly incapable of and/or unwilling to acknowledge any faults or mistakes of their own, their rhetoric continues to perpetuate the old notion that young people are inherently lazy and stupid, and need to be “protected” from themselves by subjugating their individuality and free will to the service of the rich and powerful.
This is why headlines like “Two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is” can be tremendously misleading, because without a broader understanding of the larger forces at work, the wording of those headlines feed right into the whole “millennials are stupid” nonsense. The reality is that between going to schools that are rapidly losing their ability to give their students any real history education, and coming home to households where their parents can’t supplement their in-school education because they’re too busy working countless jobs just to pay all the bills, the main reason why so many young people lack basic knowledge about the Holocaust is because they live in a society where they haven’t had the opportunity to even learn about the Holocaust, and the same people who bemoan their alleged indifference to history are the ones most responsible for their lack of historical understanding.
The importance of understanding the Holocaust can’t be overstated, perhaps even more so at this crucial moment in our history. I’ve been making my way through Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism these past few weeks, and learning far more than I ever knew before about the factors that led to the Holocaust and the atrocities of the early Soviet Union. The historical parallels between then and now are downright chilling, and worse yet is the fact that breeding ignorance in the larger population is among the most prominent of those parallels. Trying to teach this history to young people who were never exposed to it in their earlier schooling is nothing short of a monumental task, but it may be one of the most important for us to take right now.
There is a world of difference between ignorance and willful ignorance. Millennials who weren’t sufficiently taught about the Holocaust in school may be ignorant about it, but they did not choose to be ignorant. The people responsible for them not getting that opportunity not only willfully robbed them of that chance, but are also practicing the worst kind of willful ignorance themselves, by fostering some of the same conditions that led to the most genocidal of 20th century regimes. Their will to ignorance may be incredibly strong, but our will to educate has to be stronger.