by Yule Heibel on January 27, 2005

A brief memo. Today (hence the title, Coincidentally) I realised that my kids (aged 10 and 13) have, since we moved here in 2002, completed the BC Social Studies curriculum for grades 7 and 8, and that the younger one has only 3 more papers to finish before she is done with grade 9, while the older one has 5 more papers to finish (all dealing with the economy of the Pacific Rim) before he is finished with grade 10, and not once in that span of 4 grades was the Holocaust Shoah even mentioned, much less discussed, described, analysed.

Shame on the official BC Social Studies curriculum. [see note, below]

My children know quite a bit about the Holocaust Shoah — factually, philosophically, epistemologically — because of who their parents are: we make sure they know. But god only knows what the average junior or senior high schooler, with a “history consciousness” mediated by popular culture, knows about epochal events like this.

Perhaps it’s a knowledge informed by a pastiche of moral condemnation (“a bad thing happened” + “those Nazis sure were extreme dudes, man”) coupled with a quantitative “understanding” of what happened (“the Nazis murdered x-nr. of people”). What’s missing in that combination of shallow pseudo-moral comprehension and quantitative emphasis is this: that the Holocaust Shoah is qualitatively unique, and that it represents an insoluble puzzle — a caesura in Western culture — which cannot be “communicated” by yet another piece of curriculum designed for easy swallowing. Does the BC curriculum avoid it for that reason? Who knows, but I doubt it. It’s probably more likely that the subject is avoided because it’s impossible to package, and that it’s therefore left to the discretion of individual teachers to bring it into the classroom. That’s not good enough, really.

There’s a lot of emphasis in secondary school on getting enough credits to graduate, but you cannot “get credit” for the Holocaust Shoah. This isn’t something you can substitute for something else in some module study. And there really are things in education that are worth being puzzles which can’t be solved. If you’re never confronted by them, you can graduate, but you’re not educated. There is something wrong with “education” that presents everything as yet another hoop, as yet another challenge, as yet another thing to substitute for something else so you can get the necessary credit for it …so you can move on to the next big thing. Real education should include giving learners puzzles that have no answer, least of all a quantitative answer.

Six million? Five? Twenty? No. That’s not the answer; the question (“Why? How?”) can’t be answered by a number.


A small update, Jan.28: It’s probably a misrepresentation to speak of an “official BC curriculum,” although the curricula I refer to are approved BC Ministry of Education materials, and they are what distance learners at BC’s 9 public distance education schools are offered by way of history. It’s terrible stuff, and it reflects a larger issue of poor curricula on offer in schools, both distance/virtual and regular brick-and-mortar. Unless there’s a dedicated teacher in place who chooses to alter the provided materials and chooses to include an event as significant as the Shoah, the students will not cover this history during their “education.” In my opinion, they therefore have not been educated. Re. my striking out of the word holocaust, above, replacing it with the word Shoah, I’m prompted by an excellent article in OpenDemocracy, Words we live by: choice versus complicity, by Zsuzsanna Ardó. Among other things, she is a translator — all you “wordcentrics” should really read this article — and she pithily articulates the significance of the Shoah, thus:

…the etymology of the word “holocaust” reveals that its original meaning is “sacrifice consumed by fire”. It connotes a burnt offering or sacrificial killing in the service of a “higher” (spiritual, noble, or divine) purpose – even a form of redemption by proxy to achieve something benevolent for humanity.

The problem is that the events of the 1940s constituted the systematic, indeed industrialised, annihilation of fellow-humans. Now what exactly does that have to do with humanity?

“It’s just etymology; it’s just a word; it’s just common usage”, you might say. Well, exactly – that’s why it’s so important. We live also by words; they give unique insight into our attitudes, they contain subtexts and subliminal messages that can either aid or detract from understanding. The use of particular words, the easy resort to familiar (even if inaccurate) translations, can superimpose meaning on events and thus help to define and control much of our reality.

In the case of “holocaust”, the connotation of sacrifice or offering in relation to some divine meaning or purpose should disqualify the word from usage in relation to the Nazis’ atrocities. For their crime against humanity – even in the light of Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, or Saddam Hussein – is the ultimate weeping wound of the 20th century. After it, humanity’s self-image will never be the same again. [More…]


Thanks for your comments, Melanie, Kate, Maria — I will respond (this post & the previous one, re. William Leiss’s seminars at PaCTaC), just give me a day or so to catch up on everything else around here!

Further note: I posted a related entry about curriculum issues on January 30/05.


melanie January 28, 2005 at 6:31 am

Too right! What and how, but not why. The last is too confusing for designers of a curriculum that is supposed to show outcomes in the form of ‘competencies’.

Schroeder made a good speech about how easy it can be to slide into popular acceptance of something like that. I thought Christa Wolf’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Model Childhood was enlightening too.

Kate S. January 28, 2005 at 9:43 am

Well, that explains why there is so much of an uprising again. There is a surge of neo-Nazis, anti-semitism, and revisionist puplpit pounders who insist to their enthralled young audiences that the Holocaust never happened. Not like THAT.
I couldn’t understand it! But now I do, if that part of history is too painful or uncomfortable for educators to deal with, I can see why glossing over the event in educational systems is giving rise to ignorance on the subject. And dismissing it, out of hand.
Maybe they think everyone will watch Schindler’s List at some point in their formative years and that will absolve them of any responsibility. But this pronounced lack of education on the subject in any school system is shocking — and unacceptable. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I too, was wondering Why? Why is this anti-Holocaust, anti-semitic movement rising around the world again? Why now, when not even all the survivors are gone? There are still witnesses, victims, alive to tell their stories and still they are not believed by many in this generation.

Is this not dangerous?

Shelley January 28, 2005 at 5:29 pm

Yule, is the Holocaust covered in later grades? I have to think it must be, it’s one of the definitive lessons on man’s inhumanity to man. That and the Inquisition.

Betsy Burke January 30, 2005 at 5:50 pm

Very interesting Yule. I’m appalled that it is not mentioned. And a good point about about puzzles with no solutions- Italian TV and school curriculum has been inundated with material on the Shoah- (many original film documentaries shown) here in Italy, as it should be- but quite a few young people here still think that “Shoah” is a French shampoo. I was speaking to a 94 year old academic on the subject and he said (and I hope I’ve got this right) that in the Medieval, in certain sectors, the Christians weren’t supposed to handle gold, so the job went to the non-Christians.

Yule Heibel January 30, 2005 at 8:22 pm

Shelley, I looked the gr.11 modules over, and it’s not covered there, either. Don’t know about gr.12. As I said in my update, I think it’s largely left to individual teachers to bring the subject into the classroom. But now I’m no longer surprised when one of those increasingly rare survivors, visiting a local school to talk to the students about the Shoah, is written up in the local papers. I used to think, “So?, doesn’t that happen a lot?” but now I realise that those visits, with the entire (middle or high) school assembled in the auditorium, are probably quite singular events in the individual student’s high school life, and with survivors dying of old age now, it’s almost appropriate, given that the curriculum doesn’t cover the material, to worry about how the students are going to learn about this.

Oh, and I haven’t seen anything about the Inquisition, either. My daughter has read lots about that, but not through anything required by her courses…. Another hot potato, too incredible to comprehend.

Good point, Melanie. “Competencies,” “learning outcomes,” all that stuff wants material that’s easy to explain & regurgitate. Ethics, morals, values even!, that’s a different story; it’s way too difficult to teach about our own implications. And then there’s fashion, too: having lots and lots of material about First Nations, with a “we bad European colonialists” emphasis, is de rigeur, to the point where you think, “If I read about one more Cree pit house, or about how they foraged for food, I’ll fall asleep,” but there’s zero about industrialised mass murder, and what that means insofar as we’re still living in that paradigm. The First Nations thing is presented as distant, and done (over, finished), with an occasional spotlight on First Nations renaissances. And if there are “baddies,” it’s the Catholics and Anglicans with their residential schools, but we’re left off the hook. There’s no discussion about atrocities that aren’t done (over, finished), nor that the Shoah might be an example of a never-finished, never-done atrocity because of how, as Sartre’s post-WWII journal Les Temps modernes put it, Europe had here assassinated itself. Europe. Not just one subset, one nation, one small group. This was endemic not just for “Germany,” but for Western society, …of which we are still a part.

Kate, I’d be curious to know how it’s covered in US textbooks. From what I remember, it certainly was far more on the agenda, in terms of being an ever-present topic, in Massachusetts, but then again, I wasn’t really paying attention to official Mass. curriculum materials. Hmmm, maybe I’ll check the Mass. Curriculum Frameworks (I have the url somewhere…). When my son was 7 and in second grade, his one-room schoolhouse (K through 8) showed the entire school (c. 75 kids) the film Anne Frank Remembered, which is a pretty heavy-duty film for little kids to watch (lots of documentary footage). Some of the Jewish parents were furious that the school did this — there was no warning to the parents, and some of the younger kids were playing backyard Nazi and Jew later that day, to the horror of some parents who had lost family in the Shoah. They also felt that it was the job of their rabbis to introduce this topic, not the school’s. Other parents felt it was good to expose the kids, but these parents had slightly older kids. My son had nightmares, especially since he could understand the German being barked by the SS in the documentary footage. Well, talk about overkill. But then that school (private, not public) was a little …crazy. When my son was in Kindergarten, he watched The Civil War, shown to all the kids, again as part of this particular school’s “history curriculum” (they were studying US history). I didn’t even know they were seeing this, I just wondered why he was having nightmares. Had I known, I would have complained: documentary photographs of corpse-littered battlefields isn’t exactly something for 5 year olds. When I found out about the Anne Frank screening, I complained, because it really did seem completely over the top to expose all the kids, even the youngest, to this (the Kindergartners that year watched it, too — who knows what they gleaned from it, but the more sensitive among them were certainly affected). It seems there should be some kind of way of balancing between saturating kids who are probably too young anyway with this vs. tip-toeing around it and not bringing it up at all.

Betsy, do you remember whether we dealt with this in high school? I can’t remember exactly, although I seem to recall that we did, somewhere in high school. But I bet it was the case of a particular, dedicated teacher bringing this material in. I don’t recall that Fred Williams (gr.11 history) at Oak Bay High talked about it at all, though… Your other point about “Shoah” getting confused with whatever else, that’s part of the problem, too: so many disasters and tragedies, so much mediated pathos and dry-as-dust moralising, and people tune out. What’s missing is how to convey to kids how and why this was so unique, why, as Ardo says, it’s the weeping wound of the 20th century. And re. the handling of gold and/or money-lending (the latter is more to the point) — there’s always been this tendency in the “righteous” to get someone else to do the prohibited “dirty work,” and then, when the latter make something of themselves in spite of the stigma attached to their doing the dirty work, the righteous then get to scapegoat them to the point of persecution. Classic. Meanwhile, a Canadian friend tells me about a German woman she knows, here in Victoria, whose son gets anti-German pushback from schoolmates who have some knowledge of Nazism. The mom thinks this is unfair; my Canadian friend wanted to know what I think. I said, “he should take his lumps.” His parents should tell him what Germans did, and he needs to own that history. Not as some kind of dead weight that pushes him down, but as something that’s worth problematising. Then maybe he can start to think about what he would have done, had he lived in that period, and he can explain that to his little friends and ask them if they would have acted like human beings or like beasts. Own the history, and then make it a lesson that gets other people to reflect on how they would have behaved. That’s better than being passive consumers.

maria January 30, 2005 at 10:26 pm

You know Yule and Betsy, I remember that bit about Christians not being supposed to handle the gold and money, mostly money–more likely to do with interest issues–from my European school days. The way I remember it, though–and this was in the late, late 1960s in Romania or hUngary (or maybe it was just the teacher’s enlightened stance) was that this was an invaluable service performed by Jews, who then were shunned, feared, and despised for these reasons, along with all the others…

Here in Marin in Califronia, the Shoah is very much part of my kids’ education (and not just through the synagogue, where they did get most of it — as well as from me). In fact, Elie Wiesel was required reading (my older son claims that it was in the 8th grade, but I am sure it was in high school!) in the public school system. My younger son, who is in the 10th grade, just told me that yes, they did study the Shoah already.

I was watching Italian TV (we get RAI), and there were quite a few specials on, as Betsy mentioned it already. I found the coverage by Italian TV really impressive–even if my Italian is not quite up to speed for taking it all in (they do talk fast!).

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