Visiting the US Holocaust Museum leaves indelible memories. The permanent exhibit is carefully curated to walk the visitor through the key turning points that shaped one of the most horrific atrocities in the history of humanity: the intentional and systematic murder of millions of people by a government that upheld an ideology of racial supremacy. The Holocaust resulted in the assassination by the German government led by Adolf Hitler of six million Jews, plus almost six million non-Jewish Soviet civilians, 3 million soviet prisoners of war, almost two million non-Jewish polish civilians and about 700,000 political opponents, homosexuals, Serb civilians, disabled people, Roma, Jehova’s Witnesses, and criminal offenders. The first section of the exhibit in the US Holocaust Museum focuses on the rise of the Nazi party, several sections illustrate critical turning points, and make clear how the indifference of many to the Nazi assault enabled the escalation of authoritarianism and violence.
The Museum has, in its permanent and online exhibits, several sections explaining the role of ‘bystanders’ in the Holocaust. Bystanders are those who, knowing what was happening, chose not to get involved. One of the early manifestations of the rise of Nazism were abuses against Jewish children in schools, with teachers as bystanders.
As the academic year begins in American colleges and universities, all of us who teach in higher education will have to decide whether to address the horrific scenes of a large group of white nationalists parading on the campus of the University of Virginia three weeks ago, which led to violence against a group of opponents the next day, including the murder of three people and thirty five injured. Compounding the violence of these events, President Donald Trump equivocated in failing to condemn the white supremacists who perpetrated the violence. These events marked a climactic moment in recent American history, when a number of groups have documented as an escalation in racially motivated hatred since the last election. Among these groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center has done the most careful and analytic work in documenting the rise in hate.
Complex as engaging our students in a discussion of current affairs may be it is, I believe, the only path to being an upstander in a most complicated moment in the history of this democracy. Opening up conversations about such difficult topics may indeed bring us to uncharted territory, but it may also provide our students with an opportunity to think about problems that are as important and consequential to them and to their future, as they are to us and to the future of this democracy.
Last week, as I taught the first class in a graduate course on Education Policy Analysis, I chose to open a conversation about Charlottesville with my students. The purpose of this introductory class has been, in past years, to help students understand that education policy is based on three hypotheses: A hypothesis about how students learn, a hypothesis about how policy interventions can influence the conditions that influence student learning, and a hypothesis about the factors and interests groups which keep current policy in place, which leadership to advance alternative policies would have to influence. In past years, I have provided my students a challenge of practice to discuss these concepts. An example might be discussing how to improve the effectiveness of early literacy instruction in a school system, or how to foster the development of higher order cognitive skills such as problem solving. Students have to connect a hypothesis about what conditions in classrooms would produce such results, with an analysis of the systems that make such conditions possible, and ultimately to policy options that governments could pursue to enact such conditions.
I decided this year to replace the problem of practice on literacy or higher order thinking with a discussion examining what role educational institutions could play in preventing and curbing the racism demonstrated by some of the leaders of the Charlottesville events, as those leaders conveyed their views in an interview to HBO. The documentary “Charlottesville: Race and Terror” is difficult to watch. The raw hatred of those interviewed is deeply offensive. But the documentary is a fine piece of courageous journalism, providing context to understand the violence which media have reported over the last several weeks.
Following the viewing of this documentary, my graduate students engaged in a rich and sophisticated discussion of the ways in which schools may have played a role in shaping the views portrayed in the film. They were coolheaded, analytical and very respectful of views that differed from their own. They examined a range of viewpoints, from the limits of schools relative to the role of families and communities in shaping values, to the importance of teaching history, and to how history should be taught, to help students develop perspective and a deep understanding of the institutions of racism and oppression. Their comments were probing, searching for evidence that curriculum did in fact matter to shaping values and dispositions, and questioning the limitations of empathy as an approach to get students to respect the rights of ‘out-groups’. One of the background readings was the book ‘One Student at a Time. Leading the Global Education Movement’, in which I discuss how the rise in national populist movements is likely to influence public education and to challenge the notion of human rights.
I was not surprised that the discussion had been so generative. A week earlier, I had sent students in the masters program I direct, a survey asking for their views on the condition of tolerance towards difference in schools they had direct knowledge of, and inviting them to reflect on instructional and policy approaches that could foster the cultivation of tolerance. Students were similarly insightful in suggesting a range of approaches that could promote tolerance and diminish race-based hatred and violence. As these are graduate students who have professional experience, it should not be surprising that they have already studied and thought about these issues, but I suspect similarly rich conversations would be possible even with students who have not had experience working in schools.
Opening a conversation about Charlottesville in my class and conducting a survey among my students were relatively simple things to do. Engaging in conversations of this sort as the school year begins, certainly in schools of education, but also beyond, would produce valuable conversations helping our students think through and develop a perspective on the troubling developments of the reported rise of hatred in America. What could be more important to educating citizens and professionals than engaging them in the study and deliberation of these challenging developments in our society?