Commentary

'Genocide' Curriculum Is Unwise

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The model curriculum on human rights and genocide recently adopted by the California Board of Education ("California Board Set To Act on Human-Rights Curriculum," Sept. 16, 1987) not only violates the traditions and memories of certain ethnic and religious groups but also endangers the search for truth that public education should protect.

One must seriously question the political wisdom and the pedagogical merit of designing units in a mandated school curriculum around a theme as problematic and explosive as "genocide." History is filled with examples of groups of people killed outside the confines of conventional warfare. Religion or ideology is usually a factor, as in this century has been the practice of total war.

Depending upon one's definition of "genocide," the examples can be legion. A list might include the slaughter of children ordered by Herod, the killing of women as witches in medieval Europe, and the liquidation of American Indians and Central European Jews. In a catalogue of genocide, some might also enter instances of civilian death caused by specific economic or military policies, such as the Irish famine in the 19th century, the Ukranian famine in the 20th century, and the bombings of London, Dresden, and Hiroshima during the Second World War. Even to attempt such a list is to raise controversial issues of definition and to perpetuate old wounds.

Given this difficulty, the only rational way to address these kinds of events is to present them in their broader historical context. In order to give them the kind of credibility they deserve, any examination of specific instances must avoid obvious bias and oversimplification. The example of "the Ottoman Empire's massacre of Armenians in 1915-18," given a nine-page presentation in the California curriculum as an example of "genocide," is a case in point.

Permitting its Christian and non-Turkish groups to flourish, the Ottoman Empire for most of its history followed a policy of religious and ethnic toleration, in stark contrast to the contemporary Christian West and its "massacres." In the 19th century, however, ethnic nationalism worked to dissolve that "medieval" arrangement--as it did in the Hapsburg Empire--and conflicts arose between centralizing and separatist tendencies.

During the First World War, leaders of the Armenian community, in a desire to create an independent nation-state out of the incipient dissolution of the empire, al5p6lied with the enemies of the Ottomans. Tsarist Russia in particular, the historic enemy of the empire, actively used this nationalist movement as a kind of fifth column. As is the case in these kinds of situations, some Ottoman Armenians remained neutral, while others supported the invading Russian army.

Under such circumstances, Turkish feelings toward Armenians became inflamed, and innocent people were killed. Many Armenians died while being relocated by an incompetent Ottoman administration, and what might rightly be termed "massacres" took place--on both sides, some historians would say.

To a person who suffered as a result of these events, such a detached interpretation may seem cruel and unfeeling. The suffering of individuals and families cannot be forgotten and must be honored. But should the last years of Ottoman history be presented in a mandated part of a school curriculum as an example of "genocide"?

One cannot but be deeply moved by the comments of Archie Dickranian, an elderly Armenian American for whom the existence of the California curriculum is a healing experience. If, however, the head of the committee that developed the model is of Armenian descent and if, as reported, the resources provided for districts and teachers in the curriculum do not include "a single Turkish-American group," then one must respectfully take issue with Mr. Dickranian's statement that "... the Armenian genocide will be taught in schools accurately and academically, free from political pressures and distortions."

In addition to issues of historical balance and accuracy, educators must look at the possible consequences of any academic program. One must wonder if this kind of approach to past atrocities will indeed, in the words of the California committee, "help identify ways to prevent them from ever happening again," or merely perpetuate the vicious cycle of animosity.

In answering this question, one is influenced by where one sits. As the head of an American-sponsored school for Turkish students, I live in a city where Greek and Armenian schools and churches exist, and I work in a school with students and staff of both Turkish and Armenian descent, working side by side in their common home. The wounds inflicted during the First World War are being healed in modern Turkey, although I must note the fact that one of our students was orphaned by the massacre of her family while her father was serving as a diplomat.

Archival material from this period of Ottoman history is becoming available for historians, who are encumbered with problems of transliteration and translation, as well as political and ideological pressures from all sides. Neither the search for truth nor the need for healing is aided by the view that this period of history is an example of "genocide."

Subject to a deep-seated bias, the history of the Middle East is poorly understood by Americans. Both the "significance of past atrocities" committed in this part of the world and the need for future American citizens to understand fully an area of vital importance to U.S. foreign policy would be better served by historical study than by telling children, in one critic's words, "horror story after horror story."

If California's committee wishes to provide some balance in background material, it might look at The Armenian File, by Kamuran Gurun (K. Rustem and Bro. and Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd., London, Nicosia, Istanbul, 1985), an attempt by a Turkish historian to come to terms with this issue through an analysis of documentary evidence. Although the book is not published in the United States--in itself an interesting fact--I am sure that any reputable Turkish-American group could provide a copy for the committee's perusal.

The traditions and memories of a family or of an ethnic or religious group are sacred and must be kept inviolate. The tradition of public education in a free society is to protect the search for truth. When these two traditions conflict--as they are doing more and more often in American education--objectivity and fairness must have a high priority. These crucial qualities may have been lost in California's curriculum on human rights and genocide.

Always difficult to approach, objectivity is never wholly attainable and sometimes is not appropriate. If labeling the events in Anatolia during the First World War as "genocide" and presenting them outside the context of a conventional history course can truly help to heal, then the program as described will be of value. However, the use of this term and the apparent bias of the program could impede a mutual search for a deeper historical accuracy--the only way to a true mutual healing--and serve to perpetuate an atmosphere conducive to future atrocities.

Vol. 07, Issue 07, Page 22

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