Embarrassed through insufficient skepticism?

A while back, I posted about news reports that teachers in the U.K. were reluctant to teach about the Holocaust because of fears of offending the sensibilities of certain parts of the population. The subtext, of course, was that Muslims were the ones who would be offended. I lamented that such sensitivity might be causing teachers in the UK not to teach the Holocaust properly, much as sensitivity to the religious beliefs in the US lead to teachers not teaching evolution. I wasn’t alone in making this connection. Both PZ and the Bad Astronomer made similar comments.

It turns out that perhaps I should have heeded the words of some of my commenters, who warned me that this story didn’t quite pass the smell test. Indeed, there was speculation that the Department of Education report that mentioned reluctance to teach the Holocaust in some UK districts had been quote-mined for ideological purposes and those quotes promulgated by a press release, to be lapped up by a credulous press.

Thanks to Deborah Lipstadt, I now have indications that the state of Holocaust education in the UK is nowhere near as dire as the news reports suggested. Indeed, Professor Lipstadt points out parts of the report that produce a more balanced view:

It notes that there are some teachers who are not prepared to teach topics which might evoke a strong reaction from students. This, however, is NOT referred to as a trend. The authors of the report hypothesize that some teachers

may be 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. [p.15]

There was a history department in a northern city which recently

avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils…. In another history 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 because their balanced treatment of the topic would have directly challenged what was taught in some local mosques. [p.15]

But the report also documents some very sensitive and careful teaching of the topic with teachers addressing

misconceptions students might have about the topic, including the beliefs that all Germans were Nazis, that the Nazis invented anti-Semitism, that all Jews were helpless victims and that all the victims died in gas chambers.[p.32]

[…]

In certain areas where extremists groups are strong teachers have made a special point to teach about the Holocaust as a means of countering hatred and antisemitism. [p. 32]

In short, while there are areas of concern there are also areas of distinction. It certainly does not give reason for panic or attacks. The Holocaust Educational Trust comments about teaching of the Holocaust are worth reading.

Indeed, the Holocaust Educational Trust states about the report that there was reluctance to teach the Holocaust in one district due to concern about offending:

Within the TEACH report from the Historical Association, there is one particular line relating to
Holocaust education which has been the focus of the press and various alarmed emails. It features in the section addressing why teachers avoid teaching certain subjects and states: ‘… a history department in a northern city recently avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework for fear of confronting anti-Semitic (sic) sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils’. (p15)

The key points regarding this statement are:

  • This does not refer to Holocaust education on the National Curriculum-it is a post-14 History GCSE course (publicly examined course)
  • History at GCSE is not compulsory (only one third of pupils opt for history post-14)
  • This is an anecdotal response from one teacher in one school out of four thousand five hundred secondary schools in the UK. While we cannot say what happens in every single school, our understanding is that this is highly unusual and not general practise of teachers around the country.
  • All schools can choose which history topics they wish to study for coursework at GCSE level.
  • There is no suggestion that this or any other school is failing to cover the National Curriculum in teaching about the Holocaust at Key Stage 3, Year 9 (age 13-14).

At no point does the report from the Historical Association suggest that the Holocaust be removed from the National Curriculum for England and Wales. Obviously we and all Holocaust related organisations in the UK take this very seriously, however on this occasion we want to allay all fears and impress upon everyone that the Holocaust is not being removed from the National Curriculum. This particular incident does of course merit further investigation but in no way represents all the good work in our schools across the country.

I suspect that I and others exhibited insufficient–shall we say?–skepticism about the news reports coming out. All I can do is admit this to be the case and promise to try to be more careful in the future before biting at something like this.