Teaching the holocaustTeaching

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
TEACHING THE HOLOCAUST: educational dimensions, principles and practice. Edited by Ian Davies. Continuum. pound;14.99

The resounding judgment delivered by Justice Gray in the David Irving libel case in March may encourage the debate about teaching the Holocaust to move on. The thoughtful and often eloquent essays collected in this book will help teachers trying to find a satisfactory approach.

The philosopher Ian Gregory lays out some teaching principles. If there is a spectrum from the entirely cognitive approach at one end to the completely affective at the other, at what point should we stand? Or, more likely, where should we stand for different parts of a scheme of work on the Holocaust?

The extreme positions are not without their supporters. At the cognitive end, this is a historical event like any other, to be learnt and known about. There are controversies to be investigated, witnesses' testimonies to be evaluated, as with, say, the French Revolution. But this is not a historical event like any other and, as Gregory says, "reason seems a cold instrument to measure pain."

Terry Haydn crams a lot of ideas into his short essay "Teaching the Holocaust through History". He suggests that we need to progress from the apparently affective, but ultimately sterile "Wasn't it terrible?" approach by asking some more worthwhile questions. These start by placing the Holocaust firmly in history. For instance, what happened and how do we find out about it? To what extent was Hitler to blame? Why didn't other countries stop it?

It is all too easy to set up learning which makes the Holocaust a unique event, allowing students to pigeonhole it as just the result of a long-dead crackpot called Hitler. An essentia perspective should be to expose the historical roots of anti-Semitism. Sarah Rees Jones's chapter does this very well, taking us right back to the late Roman Empire.

In his introduction, the American philosopher John K Roth insists that "better times depend on better people". That is why the Holocaust is the only named event in the key stage three programme of study for history.

But how can teachers effectively move their students on? Lord Lane, (in Carrie Supple's pioneering textbook on teaching the Holocaust, From Prejudice to Genocide) pointed out that "oppression does not stand at the door with a toothbrush moustache and a swastika armband. It creeps up insidiously, step by step." We need to get students to think beyond the concentration camps and the gas chambers. Haydn's suggested questions again offer other ways in: why did ordinary educated people do such things? In what ways does the Holocaust affect the present and the future?

He also answers one of his own questions - when did the Holocaust start?- by quoting historian Martin Gilbert: "The day the Jews started to be treated differently."

There is an increasing amount of thought-provoking and powerful material on the web to guide teachers keen to expand their resources and the best are listed by Haydn. There are also useful essays on working with exhibitions, visits and Holocaust survivors. The flood of Holocaust survivor testimonies in the past 10 years, the elderly survivors giving up time to go into schools to talk about their experiences, are motivated by a need to say "Never again". We owe it to them to ensure that their voices are heard and the lessons learned.

Chris Culpin is director of the Schools History Project


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