As states weigh new mandates for teaching about the Holocaust, the movie director Steven Spielberg last week cast a spotlight on the subject before an Academy Awards audience estimated in the hundreds of millions worldwide.
In accepting the best-picture Academy Award for “Schindler’s List,’' Mr. Spielberg implored educators to make sure the genocide of Jews during World War II does not become a historical footnote.
“Please listen to the words and the echoes and the ghosts. Please teach this in your schools,’' exhorted Mr. Spielberg in accepting an Oscar for his film, an account of the slaughter of Jews by the Nazis that tells the story of a German industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Jewish workers and children.
The film has further spurred efforts to teach more about the Holocaust in schools. Educators have reported rising interest in the subject in recent years.
Among the latest initiatives, bills pending in Florida and New Jersey would require instruction on the Holocaust and genocide in public schools. California and Illinois mandate some form of genocide instruction, while more than a dozen other states recommend it.
And a U.S. senator last week sought U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley’s endorsement of “Schindler’s List’’ for use as an educational tool.
“The interest that a film like ‘Schindler’s List’ can stimulate doesn’t frequently happen with such receptivity,’' said Dennis Klein, a former director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Braun Center for Holocaust Studies.
Museum Seen as Catalyst
Samuel Totten, an associate professor of education at the University of Arkansas and the co-author of guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, pointed out that the film is not the only recent event that has heightened interest.
Based on the number of educators’ calls he has received, Mr. Totten says the opening last year of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington--and the support educators are receiving from it--has been an even greater catalyst. (See Education Week, April 28, 1993.)
Meanwhile, so much in the spotlight is Mr. Spielberg’s film that U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., asked Secretary Riley in the midst of an appropriations-subcommittee hearing last week if he would endorse “Schindler’s List.’'
Mr. Riley said he would consider it. “I wish every American could see it. ... It was definitely powerful and moving,’' he said.
Some of the sensitivity that potentially surrounds the educational use of “Schindler’s List,’' however, was seen recently when a group of high school students in Oakland, Calif., was thrown out of a theater for laughing during a showing of the film. Their teacher acknowledged to a reporter from The Washington Post that he should have better prepared his class before taking them to the movie.
Influential Poll Questioned
Part of the impetus for current initiatives on Holocaust studies also comes from a poll last year by the Roper Organization that indicated that 20 percent of the high school students, and 22 percent of the adults, surveyed said it was possible that the Holocaust had not occurred.
The results of the survey alarmed Jewish leaders and others and led some policy makers to initiate action to educate students about that historical period.
But the startling results of the Roper poll may have been predicated on a faulty survey question.
In a survey of adults in January, the Gallup Organization found that by changing the question’s wording, only 4 percent said they doubted that the Holocaust occurred.
“Many people, it appears, were confused by the [original] question,’' reported Gallup, in large part because the question contained a double negative.
Gallup also found that most of the skeptics in its poll cited a lack of knowledge of history as the main reason for their doubts.
In New Jersey, Sen. John H. Ewing, the chairman of the Senate education committee, proposed a curriculum mandate partly in response to the Roper poll.
Mr. Ewing also promoted such education as a means of eradicating prejudice and hatred.
“This bill will insure that our students are taught the ruinous consequences of intolerance and blind hatred,’' said Mr. Ewing, who has received correspondence from Mr. Spielberg in support of the bill.
Although the measure requires the teaching of genocide, local school boards may establish specific curricula based on the cultural composition of their districts.
John M. Henderson, the associate director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, said that the film and the bill did not have a cause-and-effect relationship but that the movie “has given an impetus to its movement. This is one mandate we’re not against.’'
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 1994 edition of Education Week as ‘Schindler’s List’ Spurring Calls for Holocaust Education