Education Opinion

Defending a ‘Genocide’ Curriculum

By Levon Marashlian — December 02, 1987 6 min read
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Harry A. Dawe’s criticism of the inclusion of genocide in the new curriculum adopted by the California Department of Education (“‘Genocide’ Curriculum Is Unwise,” Commentary, Oct. 21, 1987) raises serious educational and historical questions. If unchallenged, his views--influenced by his posiiton as head of Istanbul’s Robert College--could contribute to what some have called the “dumbing down” of textbooks in the United States, and could undermine the efforts of educators who have been calling attention to the importance of teaching human rights and genocide in public schools.

Mr. Dawe’s belief that we “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”’ places him among those who wish to avoid sensitive topics in the classroom. And in his fear that “even to attempt” a list of genocides “is to raise controversial issues of definition and to perpetuate old wounds,” he forgets George Santayana’s well-known admonition affirming the necessity of understanding the painful past in order to make a better future.

By mentioning such events as “the bombings of London” and “the killing of women as witches in medieval Europe” alongside the liquidation of Central European Jews as “examples” depending “upon one’s definition of ‘genocide’,” Mr. Dawe reveals that he is not familiar with the definition of this crime against humanity. At the same time, he negates the specific significance of the Holocaust.

Implying that genocide should not be given special attention in curricula, Mr. Dawe suggests that since history “is filled with examples of groups of people killed outside the confines of conventional warfare,” and because defining genocide is difficult, “the only rational way to address these kinds of events is to present them in their broader historical context.” Many experienced history teachers, however, would respond that it is often more effective to teach complex universal concepts, such as those involved in genocide, by focusing on concrete examples, or by developing case studies, rather than by cursorily referring to events in chronological order.

But if attention must be given to such events, he writes that, “in order to give them the kind of credibility they deserve, any examination of specific instances must avoid obvious bias and oversimplification.” Citing as “a case in point” the inclusion in the curriculum of the Armenian experience, one example among several genocides and many gross human-rights violations California treats, he objects to the use of the word “genocide” to describe those events.

In rejecting this definition, Mr. Dawe pits himself against massive European and American archival evidence, including the testimonies of Protestant missionaries and State Department officials. We might cite, for instance, one of Mr. Dawe’s predecessors, Caleb F. Gates, who served as president of Robert College from 1903-1932. In his autobiography, Not to Me Alone (1940), Mr. Gates recalled the massacres of 1895-96, noting that although some Armenian agitators “did stir up some trouble, in most cases the attacks upon the Armenians were unprovoked. ...

“Since the massacres of the last decade of the 19th century, the Turkish government had apparently abandoned its efforts to destroy the Armenians,” Mr. Gates continues. “But the animosity against them had not died out; it was only buried, waiting to break out when an occasion should arise. The World War gave such an occasion, and the deportations inflicted sufferings upon that afflicted people greater even than those caused by the massacres. ... The procedure was to turn the Armenians out of their homes and to drive them into waste regions. ...

“From the Asiatic provinces came reports showing a veritable reign of terror there, and nearer at hand I had first-hand knowledge. ... Even the German and Austrian ambassadors protested against these cruelties, but were told: ‘You must not interfere with our internal policy.’

“This policy seemed to be the scattering of Christians ... until one homogenous Turkish nation should be formed.”

U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau was convinced that the Ottoman government had unleashed “a campaign of race extermination,” that when “the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no attempt to conceal the fact.”

The spirit and intent of the deportation becomes even clearer when we recall that, in the words of the Turkish historian Salahi Sonyel, the “government entrusted the guarding of the convoys of Armenians, who were being deported, to non-combatants, usually convicts released for the purpose.” And Dr. Rafael Lemkin, who coined the word “genocide” after World War II, repeatedly cited “the Armenian victims of genocide in 1915.”

Mr. Dawe is also under the mistaken impression that the California Department of Education did not consider the Turkish denial of this definition. Mentioning a Turkish publication, he writes that he is “sure that any reputable Turkish-American group could provide a copy for the committee’s perusal.” The fact is that that particular book and many others presenting the Turkish position were made available to the curriculum-development committee

There was Turkish-American representation on the Curriculum Review Committee. Spokesmen from Turkish-American groups testified at the public hearings held during the long and careful process of developing the curriculum. Many letters advocating the Turkish denial were received. Paid ads were placed in newspapers, and radio and tv interviews were given. The Armenian genocide was ultimately included not because the Department of Education did not seek Turkish input, but because the arguments presented in this input, when weighed against other evidence, were presumably considered untenable on scholarly grounds.

Mr. Dawe also wonders in his essay, “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.” On the contrary, one must wonder how such atrocities are to be prevented if we do not understand the conditions under which they can occur.

The argument that the teaching of the destruction of the Armenians by the Ottoman government promotes hatred toward the Turkish people has been a centerpiece of the Turkish input presented to the California Department of Education; it is a patently irrational argument. The curriculum makes it clear that the tragedy occurred “by the will of the government” and that “thousands of Armenian women and children were rescued and sheltered by compassionate individual Turks, Kurds, and Arabs.”

Teaching about the destruction of the Jews by the Nazi government does not promote hatred of the German people.

The central cause of the on-going Armenian-Turkish conflict is not so much the facts of history as it is Ankara’s policy of denying those facts (in contrast to Germany’s courageous and expiatory acceptance of historical facts).As one who neither feels nor wishes to promote animosity toward the Turkish people, I find it distasteful and unjustifiable for advocates of the Turkish position to make this an issue.

I appreciate and share Mr. Dawe’s professed commitment to “objectivity and fairness” and “truth” and the need to “heal.” If he is truly committed to these ends, he might examine carefully the abundent archival and published sources that support the evidence summarized in California’s curriculum. And he might consider encouraging the organization of a scholarly forum, with a mutually acceptable format, in which all evidence and perspectives can be weighed openly--perhaps at Robert College, an American-sponsored institution that in past years has played a positive role in the life of both Armenians and Turks.

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 1987 edition of Education Week as Defending a ‘Genocide’ Curriculum


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