No ordinary history

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Sean Lang on the Holocaust debate

Teaching the Holocaust in School History; Continuum Studies in Education Pounds 65

Many teachers dread the Holocaust. They are unsure how to convey its sheer horror to pupils, and what their teaching should hope to achieve. One teacher interviewed for this book plays scenes from Schindler's List in class to suitable music in order to provoke an emotional response; others are more hard-nosed and insist that the Holocaust is subject to the same rules of historical evidence and inquiry as anything else.

"Holocaust" comes from the Greek for a burnt sacrifice, and it only properly applies to the Jewish victims of the Second World War. However, some point out that the term excludes the other victims and, in any case, these people weren't sacrificed, they were murdered.

These are not just academic arguments. A teacher who suggested in the Teaching History Journal that the Holocaust should be taught without an overt moral agenda received furious letters from others who felt that one of the main reasons for teaching it should be to ensure that such things never happen again.

But they do. The people of Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and Chad can all testify that genocide does not need cattle trucks or gas chambers. One young Rwandan Tutsi found himself being guarded during the 1994 genocide by the Hutu he used to sit next to in class. Had they learnt together about the Holocaust, one wonders?

Teaching the Holocaust is a sensitive and contentious issue. Lucy Russell offers a clear and thorough outline of the arguments that have surrounded it. There is a fascinating behind-closed-doors account of how the topic passed in and out of favour with the history working group that drew up the history national curriculum: it shows how major curricular decisions were made on the basis of discussions into the small hours at country hotels, and sudden interventions from the Prime Minister.

Less satisfying is the very brief mention given to Holocaust denial, a topic that is bound to be raised in the classroom. It's not enough just to say that the deniers are wrong; teachers need to know about how deniers manipulate the historical record and how to marshal strong evidence to refute them, which will stand up to scrutiny in class.

Lucy Russell's own sympathies clearly lie with the Holocaust-as-ordinary-historical-topic camp, but she doesn't impose them; she invites us to debate the issues she has raised. However, with the book retailing at a whopping pound;65, most of us will have to debate in whispers, in the school library

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