In late November, a Jewish faculty member at Columbia Teacher’s College in New York entered her office to find swastikas and an ethnic slur spray-painted on her walls. This profoundly disturbing episode is representative of a sinister trend. Since the election of President Trump in 2016, hate crimes in general have been on the rise in America, with anti-Semitism in particular climbing sharply. The numbers are staggering, troubling, but sadly unsurprising.
How do we account for this? In part, we can look to our education system, where research shows two things to be true: First, eight states, including New Jersey, mandate that teachers discuss the Holocaust and other genocides in their classrooms, with legislators in 20 others taking steps to do the same last year. Second, even mandated education simply is not working.
Several years ago, I conducted a study, forthcoming in The Social Studies journal, that measured what student-teacher candidates in New Jersey knew about the Holocaust. They had big gaps in their knowledge. In the survey of more than 100 future teachers, only 30 percent knew that the Jewish people were the primary victim group. In their responses, students spelled Auschwitz 28 different ways, and it was the only concentration camp mentioned.
This fall I gave a second survey to my classes. With anti-Semitism rising, it seemed timely to measure if these future teachers were learning anything different than in the past. The sample was modest but representative: 75 students, all on track to become teachers in another year or so, who had attended New Jersey public schools. The questions included: When did the Holocaust take place, what was the political party that perpetrated it, how many people were killed, who were the victim groups, who was the American president, and what other genocides can you identify?
As they finished the survey and turned in their answers, they immediately began Googling, chagrined to see how far off they were. Paper after paper placed the Holocaust in the 1800s, named the American president of that time as Reagan, and listed the number of victims in the thousands or as “too many.”
While the results mirrored the previous surveys, the conversation that took place after was most revealing. These student-teachers were shocked that they knew so little about the Holocaust. They admitted they had no ideas about how to teach the Holocaust, other genocides, or complex and controversial histories in general. This recognition was heartening but pointed to a fundamental problem with our educational system.
This is a policy issue, but also one of practice. The best way to combat anti-Semitism is to learn about it, to contextualize it, and to understand its implications. Our teachers can do more, and universities can help. For a start, whether states have Holocaust and genocide mandates or not (New Jersey has a mandate, while Pennsylvania has a suggestion), colleges of education need more opportunities for student-teachers to learn about the Holocaust, other genocides, and issues of human rights. Not “one and done” professional development sessions, but ongoing, serious learning.
A wealth of dates, names, and places is not enough when it comes to teaching the Holocaust, nor is it enough to “want to teach it well.” Educating about the Holocaust and other genocides is delicate work, and student-teachers must think about how they teach difficult, emotional content to future generations. Better education can ensure better conversations both in and out of the classroom. Over the last week, for example, we have seen Temple University professor Mark Lamont Hill embroiled in controversy over his comments at the United Nations that have been accused of anti-Semitism and also defended as being misconstrued. These issues crop up repeatedly in public discourse.
Holocaust and genocide education mandates are a start toward a more comprehensive education. Teachers, both those practicing and those about to begin their work in classrooms, are in dire need of support. If anti-Semitism can happen in the offices of one of the leading teacher colleges in the nation, it’s clear that critical action is essential now, before another Charlottesville or Pittsburgh.
Jennifer Rich is the director of research and education at the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an assistant professor of interdisciplinary education at Rowan University.