Revisiting the Pedagogy and Purpose of Holocaust Education

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April 1, 2006
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Maurice Elias

Simone A. Schweber, Making Sense of the Holocaust: Lessons from Classroom Practice.
New York: Teachers College Press, 2004. 185pp. $19.95 paperback

The study of exemplars opens varying kinds of windows through which one can make inferences about typical performance. Simone Schweber’s book features an extensive look at three teachers’ classes about the Holocaust, with the work of one additional teacher who uses what might be called a “traditional” approach treated in a more cursory manner. The three focal teachers have clearly worked with extreme diligence, persistence, and creativity to create Holocaust education experiences. Perhaps more critically, they have not only thought deeply about the Holocaust, but they have explored their own feelings about it. They have come to see that Holocaust education, whether standing alone or part of larger, related units or modules, is not simply material to be conveyed to students.

At this point, we come to a fork in the road. Each of the teachers in Schweber’s book has to make an extraordinarily difficult decision. What is the lesson they want to convey about the Holocaust? Their answers depend on many things, some logistical, some personal, some based on their students and their communities. Three of the four teachers featured in Schweber’s book find answers that share a common pedagogic structure. They create integrated experiences for their students designed to affect them at an emotional level, be cumulative in their impact, and be anchored by some unexpected, visually compelling, emotionally engaging, and morally troubling presentations and discussions. The particular approaches they take, however, differ based on the context of their classes, their training, prior experiences related to Holocaust education, and a myriad of factors not fully explored by Schweber:

Understanding Historical Facts: Mr. Jefferson presents a factual approach to the Holocaust, presenting event chronologies and interrelationships with a largely frontal lecturing approach, culminating in a moral message derived from a focus on American liberation of the concentration camps.

Facing Ourselves Through History: Mr. Zee teaches about the Holocaust as part of a wider curriculum approach, Facing History and Ourselves. Students are asked to confront the moral dilemmas and challenges to citizenship inherent in all genocides, with a focus on the Holocaust.

Experiencing the Process of History: Ms. Bess creates a simulation of the Holocaust called “Gestapo” so that students can experience some aspect of the process inflicted on the victims.

Experiencing the Events of History: Mr. Dennis uses a multimodal performance format, including songs, to provide historical information interspersed with highly dramatic, sometimes dramatized reenactments of situations, such as the capturing of Anne Frank.

An affective experience is a strong and perhaps essential correlate of internalization of learning. When the material itself is highly emotionally charged, it poses a particular challenge to create a balance such that emotions do not become overwhelming, to the point where the content becomes secondary to the emotion. In truth, the Holocaust is not unique in being an emotionally charged historic event. It may be that it is the most intense, but that does not automatically mean either that instructors are obligated to convey this intensity or that creating emotionally intense experiences are the best way to create an understanding of the event. Yet there are few guidelines for those engaged in Holocaust education with regard to these considerations.

Schweber’s study has great value because it stimulates us to think at new levels of detail about what is possible in Holocaust education. Her three focal teachers have designed course experiences that are unique to them and emotionally charged; few, if any, educators could replicate what they provide. Indeed, in other hands, their approaches may well have an iatrogenic quality; such is the case with powerful techniques on powerful topics. So we must ask ourselves: what can be expected from Holocaust education as it is delivered in secular education and various Jewish education contexts?

What contribution is Holocaust education making to raising generations of youth committed to individual rights, the responsibilities of citizenship, and outspoken idealism with regard to genocide? Are we clear about the extent to which we want Holocaust education to produce outrage, action, or both, and with regard to what level of injustice? Do we want to use the Holocaust to teach moral lessons? If so, which ones?

How must we refine the general goals of remembering the Holocaust and preventing its reoccurrence? Can they both be reached via the same pedagogy and curricula? Do we sufficiently understand the developmental exposure of students to Holocaust-related education from grades K-12 (i.e., how experiences such as the ones Schweber chronicles fit with past and subsequent learning)?

To me, it is the detailed look at exemplary “Lessons from Classroom Practice” that is the most compelling aspect of this book. Reading it should lead educators – individually and collectively – to seriously revisit the pedagogy and purpose of Holocaust education, to ensure it has the potency, coherence, and continuity to reach their goals.

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Maurice J. Elias is Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University and Acting Chair of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (www.CASEL.org). He participates in the Network for Research in Jewish Education, is Associate Editor of the Journal of Jewish Education, and just published The Educator's Guide to Emotional Intelligence and Academic Achievement (Corwin, 2006).

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