Holocaust education should strive to prevent future genocides

Ellen J. Kennedy
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is interim director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.
Photo Courtesy of Ellen J. Kennedy

This century faces four grave challenges: an increasing scarcity of water, food and fuel; increasing population growth; the increasing spread of ever-more-lethal weapons; and a growing population of angry, poor youth who feel they have nothing to lose through violence.

These challenges suggest that genocide may become even more frequent and devastating in this century than in the last one.

Over the past several decades an entire academic discipline has developed around genocide education. Bookstore and library shelves are filled with outstanding materials to teach about the Holocaust and genocide. College and high school courses are proliferating, as are programs designed to reach the general public.

Some believe that the genocide in Darfur is inspiring more educators to teach about genocide. The Darfur conflict has inspired organizations like the Save Darfur Coalition and the Genocide Intervention Network. Darfur has been the subject of entire volumes of academic journals.

These efforts assume, to a large extent, that learning about genocide will prevent its recurrence.

But clearly, global leaders have known about genocides in Armenia, Europe, Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

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This knowledge did not prevent the genocide in Darfur. Something is wrong. There is a disjuncture between what we assume genocide education is doing and what is actually happening.

What form should genocide education take if our goal is to make a difference, somehow, in the world?

There are three parts to this answer. We must teach about, teach against, and teach to prevent genocide.

Teaching about genocide: We must do it comparatively, and we must do it with facts, figures, dates and maps. We also must teach from the individual and the personal perspectives. A recent UN document noted, "As a counterpoint to Nazi ideology, which sought to strip victims of their humanness, remembrance focuses on the individual and works to give each person a face, a name and a story." We must know about genocides, about the patterns and common factors that can alert us to future dangers.

Educating against genocide: Genocides happen when we create boundaries between groups of people. "Teaching against" means creating awareness of ways in which we separate, isolate and segment people based on any number of variables such as race, religion, ethnicity, etc. 'Teaching against' means understanding manipulation, propaganda and the ways in which we turn various groups into "the other."

The Nazis labeled the Jews as lice and vermin; the Hutus called the Tutsis cockroaches; the Khmer Rouge spoke about their enemies with words used for dogs. These efforts at manipulation were powerful and successful at engendering hate between people who had been friends, neighbors and even intimates. We need to raise awareness of how this happens.

Educating to prevent genocide: The third plank in genocide education is teaching to prevent genocide. This is where we encounter the world of the bystander, of those people who are unwilling to take a stand because it might be unpopular, difficult, or personally dangerous.

How do we create people who will stand up?

Individual agency and choice are at the heart of this answer. This is the message of various advocacy organizations: Ordinary citizens can and must prevent genocide. The Genocide Intervention Network and the Save Darfur Coalition, for example, focus on simple but critical steps: education; political advocacy, and fund-raising to increase safety and security for innocent people whose lives are at great risk.

Advocacy encourages ordinary citizens to contact elected officials at the local, state, national, and international levels to end genocide through legislative and multinational efforts.

Educators can shape curricula to emphasize all three areas: teaching about genocide, teaching against genocide, and teaching to prevent genocide. The goal is to build a citizenry with the political will to prevent and stop genocide. The future, and indeed the present, demand it.

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Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is interim director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.