Academic journal article Issues in Teacher Education

A Necessary Holocaust Pedagogy: Teaching the Teachers

Academic journal article Issues in Teacher Education

A Necessary Holocaust Pedagogy: Teaching the Teachers

Article excerpt

You have elected to study the history of the Holocaust. The subject matter you will investigate will make some extraordinary demands of you. The facts, even when told without embellishments in bare-boned words, will pull you into a world of such savagery that you may doubt their truth. But facts cannot be altered to ease our pained sensibilities. (Botwinick, 2001, p. xvii)

Botwinick is not alone in noting the special demands that educators face in teaching the Holocaust. Farnham (1983) begins his essay "Ethical Ambiguity and the Teaching of the Holocaust" by stating, "Having taught a college course on literature of the Holocaust four times, I will soon begin my fifth guided tour through hell" (p. 63). Schilling (1998) guards himself from the topic's pressures by teaching it only once every two years, while Klein (1995) holds that "Holocaust education is also burdened by unique problems" that place "extraordinary demands on teaching" (p. 2). Langer (1995, p. 3) posits that "Most literature-indeed, most history-does not estrange its readers with startling remarks about a remote way of being" (p. 3), thus problematizing teaching the event. These voices indicate that one does not teach the Holocaust as much as one confronts it.

Background of the Problem

The axiom "You can't teach what you don't know" carries considerable truth within its simple logic, and the corollary statement "You can't teach what you don't know how to teach" should also be acknowledged as central to any instructional situation. While both statements are true concerning the teaching of any subject, teaching the Holocaust involves unique demands, pressures, and potential pitfalls that make both caveats critical as teachers consider the if, the what, and the how of Holocaust education as well as the moral implications that arise from any meaningful and appropriate study of the event.

The unique nature of Holocaust education and potential problems evolving from that factor were evident to Holocaust scholars even as the topic was moving from the periphery to the center of school curricula. Holocaust education was in an early stage of rapid growth when Friedlander (1979, pp. 520-521) wrote that "The problem with too much being taught by too many without focus is that this poses the danger of destroying the subject matter through dilettantism. It is not enough for well-meaning teachers to feel a commitment to teach about genocide; they must also know the subject." A decade and half later, Shawn (1995, p. 16) described actual occurrences about which Friedlander had given warning, stating "But the negative side of this positive summary [the growth of Holocaust education] requires examination as well. Such rapid, broad-based popularization could conceivably dilute and diminish the impact of the Holocaust, hurrying it to its educational demise."

Stressing the need for Holocaust educators to be certified in teaching the subject, Shawn proposed that "... those who teach the subject ought to be able to explain the importance of their work, and should be knowledgeable about Holocaust history and literature. Educators must be articulate and realistic about their teaching and learning goals, and conversant with age-appropriate materials" (p. 16). More recently, Schweber (2006, p. 44) discusses "Holocaust fatigue" on the part of students and her concern that a growing trivialization of the way the Holocaust is taught diminishes students' abilities to understand the event's significance.

Responding to this problem, many Holocaust workshops are organized annually by various organizations and institutions throughout the country. Such programs may last from a few hours or one day to intensive institutes that last a week or more. Given the range of experiences that teachers encounter through such diverse offerings, one must ask, "How should pre-service and in-service teachers of the Holocaust be trained in both the history and the pedagogy of the event? …

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