As we grapple with a divided nation and increasing instances of hate and tribalism, we need to increase our commitment to education about the past to create a more compassionate future. On Jan. 27, the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year was especially poignant as it was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and the end of one of the darkest periods in modern history. In honor of this day and as a reaction to recent acts of anti-Semitism, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill called the “Never Again Education Act” to help encourage schools to teach Holocaust education. This bill grants $10 million to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum over a five year period. The museum must provide educators with resources and materials in the hopes of counteracting the rising tide of anti-Semitic violence around the world by teaching students. This bill is an important first step that should serve as a launching point for larger efforts to integrate teachings about the Holocaust and other genocides, such as the Armenian genocide, the genocide in Darfur and the current situation with Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
The decision about whether to teach about these events is largely up to individual teachers or school districts. Only 11 states, Michigan included, have any requirement that information about the Holocaust be taught in schools, and only 15 states require some education on the Armenian genocide.
Failing to effectively teach youth about these issues can lead to a shocking lack of knowledge about these events. In the case of the Holocaust, recent research has proven this to be frighteningly the case. A study from 2019 found that 41 percent of millennials believe around four million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, drastically less than the six million actually killed. Additionally, 66 percent of millennials cannot explain what Auschwitz was nor what it did. This is extremely concerning because, without an accurate understanding of what happened in the past, people cannot work to avoid the same mistakes in the future. How can we say “never again” with confidence if many people do not know what happened in the first place? As the years since the Holocaust and other genocides pass, it can be easy to get complacent. We begin to forget the true horror of these events, and we slip back into certain “us versus them” mentalities that lie at the root of these tragedies.
Over the past few years, we have seen a rapid increase in hate crimes, whether it is anti-Semitic attacks, anti-LGBTQ+ community attacks or increases in white nationalism. For many University of Michigan students, these issues are personal. We are an extremely diverse community with students of different races, religions, backgrounds and sexual orientations.
It is undeniable that education is not a foolproof solution to these problems. The visceral hate and anger that fuels attacks such as these cannot be solved simply through education. However, education about genocides and other tragic events where hate led to conflict help us to understand the fragility of society and the importance of constantly cultivating a culture of inclusiveness and respect. Through learning, we can see the danger of fear, prejudice and hate and we can recognize how everyday people can choose to stand up to forces of hate and bigotry.
I was fortunate to grow up in a community and attend a school where education about the Holocaust and other atrocities was extremely comprehensive. My school tried to integrate this education into multiple facets of our educational experience. Not only did we learn the facts in history class, but we read first-hand accounts, such as the book “Night,” in English class and had discussions about hate and discrimination in various settings. This teaching style was so effective because it allowed us to see these events not simply as a piece of history but as something that needed to be constantly addressed and understood. This is especially important for young people for whom the events of past tragedies feel far removed from many of their lives.
As students, we have an obligation to continue to try to foster a culture of tolerance on campus and beyond. Whether it is by accepting the differences of others or voicing support for legislation similar to the Never Again Education Act, we all have a duty to do our part to create a compassionate community. We should also commit to increasing our understanding of these events. Whether it is reading about past genocides or raising awareness about current atrocities, we all have a part to play in becoming more educated and contributing to a more inclusive environment.
Isabelle Schindler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.