Teaching the Holocaust: The “right” not to be offended interferes

One of the consistent themes of this blog has been combating Holocaust denial and, as a subtext, another consistent theme has been that passing laws to criminalize Holocaust denial (or, as has been attempted recently, criminalize “genocide denial“) or throwing Holocaust deniers like David Irving into jail is about as ill-advised an approach to fighting this particularly odious form of racism and anti-Semitism as I can imagine. It makes Holocaust denial the “forbidden fruit” and at the same time facilitates the truly disgusting spectacle of Holocaust deniers donning the mantle of free speech martyrs. My position all along has been that the way to combat Holocaust denial is with information about the Holocaust and by revealing the lies of Holocaust deniers for what they are. If idiocy like this stands, that battle just got a whole lot more difficult, at least in the UK:

Teachers are dropping controversial subjects such as the Holocaust and the Crusades from history lessons because they do not want to cause offence to children from certain races or religions, a report claims.

A lack of factual knowledge among some teachers, particularly in primary schools, is also leading to “shallow” lessons on emotive and difficult subjects, according to the study by the Historical Association.

The report, produced with funding from the Department for Education, said that where teachers and staff avoided emotive and controversial history, their motives were generally well intentioned.

“Staff may wish to avoid causing offence or appearing insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes. In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship,” it concluded.

However, it was concerned that this could lead to divisions within school, and that it might also put pupils off history.

The Holocaust has scarcely decreased in its ability to cause horror and emotional responses, even over sixty years after the fall of the Third Reich, but at first I was rather puzzled over who is “offended” by teaching about the Holocaust? Nazis? Who cares? Holocaust deniers? Ditto. Germans? Possibly, but how many people in the U.K. of German descent are “offended” by teaching of the Holocaust? Is teaching the Holocaust “offending” U.K. teachers? If so, why? This is the sort of story that is so bizarre that it’s hard to understand. I should have known though. It turns out that the reason being given in one report for teachers’ reluctance to teach about the Holocaust is because it might offend Muslims, many of whom buy into anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial:

The report said teachers feared confronting “anti-semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils”. Christian parents at another school complained about the way the Arab-Israeli conflict was taught.

“In another department, the Holocaust was taught despite anti-semitic sentiment among some pupils, but the same department deliberately avoided teaching the Crusades at Key Stage 3 (for 11- to 14-year-olds) because their balanced treatment of the topic would have directly challenged what was taught in some local mosques.”

Once again, if teaching the Holocaust offends Muslims of a mind to be anti-Semitic and believers in Holocaust denial (or any anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust, for that matter), so what?

I’m not entirely clear why teaching the Crusades is conflated with teaching the Holocaust in this report. For one thing, it’s becoming more and more common to teach the Crusades from a more pro-Muslim point of view than ever. Be that as it may, the Holocaust happened. As a matter of Nazi policy, some five to six million Jews were murdered. It started out by systematically stripping them of their rights, proceeded to expelling them to the East from German-occupied territories, escalated to mobile killing squads known as the Einsatzgruppen, who roamed the Eastern Front in the wake of the Wermacht’s advance, slaughtering Jews and Communist officials as they found them, and culminated with industrialized killing machines, death camps, in which Jews were processed and killed in gas chambers or died of intentional starvation and overwork. I’m not sure how you can teach even a watered-down version of what really happened without risking “offending” anti-Semites who believe either that there was no Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews, that the death toll was vastly exaggerated, and/or that the Jews provoked the Nazis and deserved what they got.

Worse, this sort of political correctness and bending over backward not to “offend” or not to teach anything that conflicts with what children are being taught at home can utterly suck the interest out of the topic. One thing that I came to appreciate over time learning history is just how messy events of the past are, just as messy as the events of today are. The difference is that we have the perspective of decades or hundreds of years to see patterns and how events of the past played out in a way that the people living then couldn’t (and that, for that matter, we can’t perceive about how the events of our own day will play out). Teaching history that way can make it come alive. Back when I was in junior high school, I still remember how one particular teacher of mine taught the origins of the Civil War. After teaching the background, he divided the class up into groups, one for the North, one for the South, told us to imagine ourselves as legislators in Congress of the time representing our states, and then had us debate all the issues that contributed to the Civil War, including slavery, states’ rights, slavery in the territories, and economic issues. Ask yourself: How often do you remember a class exercise from junior high? Well, I remember that one, because it made the issues memorable.

One aspect that I find interesting about this is how some conservatives who have a problem with evolution reacted to this. For example, over at William Dembski’s home for wayward antievolutionists, we get this commentary:

It is disturbing that this is where education in the United Kingdom is heading. Teachers are encouraged to gloss over one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century because it might offend some people’s sensibilities or religious background. Though we have survivors, documented evidence, and hard proof that it occurred, educators do not wish to teach it because it might be offensive.

However, if you happen to believe that God created the world, or a deity of some sort, then please do not raise your voice in class. That is your opinion. They will not teach the Holocaust because it might offend a radical sect of the population – but they will teach Darwinian evolution even though the majority of the population does not accept it fully?

This shows that some educators are more willing to deny the Holocaust, or at least sweep it under a rug, than abandon Darwinian evolution. Is this a sign of things to come?

I was amused by this because, after thinking about it a minute, I’m not so sure that this is the analogy that the creationists really want to make. In essence, whether the person who wrote this realizes it or not, he is equating the teaching of real history (the Holocaust) and real science (evolution, even though he doesn’t believe that evolution is real science) in schools. By implication, he seems to be equating creationists whose complaints and politicking against the teaching of evolution in public schools have led to many biology teachers glossing over evolution, teaching a watered down version of it, or ignoring it altogether, to Muslims who are anti-Semitic and/or Holocaust deniers, whose sensitivities seem to be leading some British history teachers to gloss over Holocaust history, teach a watered down version of it, or ignore it altogether. Be that as it may, also notice the not-so-subtle argumentum ad Nazi-ium here, in which, as Joshua points out, teachers are portrayed as being more willing to become Holocaust deniers (not true; they’re simply willing to water down the teaching of the Holocaust to avoid offending) than to become evolution deniers. This would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad and hypocritical, given how hard creationists have been pushing to overthrow the teaching of evolution in the U.S. over the last couple of decades.

There are many topics that can be potentially contentious, spanning multiple disciplines, including history, social studies, science (with evolution being the most prominent example), and literature (you know how some on the left want to purge all those “dead white men” from the works that students should be required to read). If these subjects are taught well and correctly, it’s virtually impossible not to gore someone’s oxen. It’s also impossible to insulate public school education completely from the political process, nor would it necessarily be desirable to do so, because public schools depend upon the support of the public to maintain political support to keep them funded adequately. Even so, there needs to be a mechanism too keep fringe elements like rabid anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers from imposing their demonstrably incorrect views of history indirectly, through causing Holocaust history teaching to be downplayed or so watered down that students do not appreciate the enormity of what happened.