Stand up and be counted

5th September 1997 at 01:00
Hundreds of thousands of children are being inspired to explore prejudice, nationalism and genocide in history and apply the lessons they learn to their own lives. Reva Klein reports

In 1976, Margot Stern Strom, a middle school teacher in Boston, Massachussetts, attended her first Holocaust workshop. In the course of it, she was struck by a letter that a principal sends to his teachers on the first day of school each year. It read: "Dear Teacher, I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness: Gas chambers built by learned engineers.

Children poisoned by educated physicians.

Infants killed by trained nurses.

Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education.

My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.

Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human."

"That letter," says Ms Stern Strom, "gave me the impetus to face my own history." What she confronted was an unchallenged petit apartheid system that operated in the Tennessee of her childhood, and an education system that ignored it.

"From that point, I worked to make sure my students learned what my teachers failed to teach - that history is largely the result of human decisions, that prevention is possible, and that education must have a moral component if it is to make a difference."

And she went further. With a colleague, she developed a teaching programme that addressed the moral and social issues of history through experiential learning. A little more than 20 years later, Facing History and Ourselves has burgeoned, under Ms Stern Strom's directorship, into a national and international educational and teacher training organisation. It has a resource library that uses the Holocaust as the springboard from which to explore racism, prejudice and antisemitism.

The body aims to promote the development of a more humane and informed society by helping students make essential connections between history and the moral choices they face in their own lives.

For young people today, living in an increasingly unequal and factionalised world, the big questions - such as how genocide can be allowed to happen - are brought into sharp focus by Facing History and Ourselves. It examines how and why anyone can dislike another person because they come from a different ethnic background or speak with an accent or behave or dress differently; how a person can stand by and let someone else be bullied or socially excluded; or how, as is the case among one in three young people in Sweden, anyone can believe the Holocaust never happened.

At a private American college in Oxfordshire last summer, a group of about 20 teachers from Hungary, Albania, Austria and the United States - as well as one British further education lecturer - came together for a week to train at the first Facing History and Ourselves Institute, a week-long residential teacher training course, in the United Kingdom. It was run by the organisation's Swiss-based European affiliate, the Association for the Advancement of Education for Democracy.

The activities were intensive and varied. On the evening of the first day, a young Hungarian teacher and I paired up, as we were bidden to do, to create human sculptures of each other signifying concepts such as "anger" "oppression" and "hope". Like any drama warm-up, it was designed to break down barriers between people - and it did. We giggled non-stop and infected others, too.

The next morning, a poem called "The Hangman," presented as an animated video, created a very different mood. It dramatically illustrated the mechanics of "bystanderism", ending with the narrator being taken away by the hangman after watching everyone else in the town being hanged.

"When does a bystander become a perpetrator?" asked August Zemo, co-director of the association and leader of the workshop. "At the first moment," suggested one participant, "of failure to protest."

To explore this theme further the class watched a contemporary German video in which a young black man boards a crowded commuter train and sits down next to a cantankerous old woman. She launches into a tirade against "you people". "Why do you come here? Who invited you?" she barks.

The other passengers are silent and impassive, as is the black man, until the conductor gets on the train to inspect tickets. Then, quick as a flash, he pulls the ticket out of the old woman's hand and eats it. Her protestations to the conductor are ignored as she is escorted off the train in disgrace for not having a ticket.

The class analysed the anatomy of victimhood and passivity. What would we have done? One of the teachers said: "I'd have swapped seats with the black guy and said to the woman that if she wanted to continue with her rant, she'd have to do it against me because I'm a foreigner."

Later, a rare film of the notorious 1960s experiments conducted by Professor Stanley Milgram of Yale University was used to look at compliance and obedience. Using student volunteers, Professor Milgram set up an experiment in which an "expert" told the subjects to administer progressively intense electric shocks to a volunteer in another room - with shouts of pain within earshot - in the name of science. No real shocks were inflicted, of course, as the volunteer victims, unbeknown to the students, were only acting. Despite his predictions that most of the students would refuse to give shocks beyond a certain point, Professor Milgram found that most complied with their orders. While some remonstrated when they heard the shouts of pain, they continued to do as they were told.

After watching the video, the class shared insights into the complexities of resisting authority, whether in Nazi Germany or Rwanda, in a science laboratory or as part of a gun-wielding gang. And beyond that, we looked at the implications of failing to resist.

These are difficult issues to grapple with, whether as teachers learning how to present them or as students wrestling with them in discussion groups.

But judging by the US experience of Facing History and Ourselves, where 21,000 teachers have gone through the training and, last year alone, brought the eight-week curriculum to 900,000 students, there is a real demand. Geared primarily at students aged 12 years and above, the programme is used in public, private and religious schools, colleges and universities, vocational schools and adult education programmes throughout the United States and in pockets of central and western Europe.

Facing History and Ourselves - which is designed to be cross-curricular - is non-proscriptive. Teachers are expected to adapt it to their needs and to refer to what is happening in the world at any particular time. Last spring for instance, Facing History and the Harvard School of Education ran a conference called "Collective Violence and Memory: Judgment, Reconciliation and Education". Teachers, students, community activists and others explored, among other things, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the United Nations war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

While these issues may seem remote from those facing tough inner-city schools fighting for daily survival, the programme touches a universal chord.

Maurice Vanderpol, a retired professor from Harvard Medical School who is on the board of directors of Facing History and is himself a Holocaust survivor, explains: "Usually, teachers will invite a Holocaust survivor to come and speak towards the end of the curriculum. I have been asked to speak in teenage detention centres, mainly with black children. I used to wonder what they would get out of my story. But when I'm with them, I realise they see me as someone who has experienced oppression and exclusion - like themselves."

Facing History has switched its European affiliation from the Association for the Advancement of Education for Democracy to Facing History and Ourselves Europe. Contact August Zemo or Bev Mayer, AED, Etzelstrasse 17, 8800 Thalwil, Switzerland. Tel: 0041 1720 3861

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