Social Studies

The Slaughter in Pittsburgh Is Horrifying. What Can Schools Do to Prevent Another?

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 30, 2018 3 min read
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The unimaginable slaughter in Pittsburgh, Pa., of 11 members of a Jewish congregation while they were attending services underscores a profoundly disturbing phenomenon: Anti-semitism is once again growing in the United States.

According to the New York Times, which referenced data from the Anti-Defamation League, the number of anti-semitic incidents in the United States increased by 57 percent in 2017 over the previous year. Or just look at the violence in Charlottesville, where white supremacists gathered last fall in a rally that turned violent, some shouting neo-Nazi slogans and carrying signs; or the vicious rancor on Twitter and on far-right chat boards.

A growing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among young people appears to be paralleling this rise. In a recent, nationally representative survey, many Americans didn’t know even basic facts about the Holocaust. Thirty-one percent of adults, and 41 percent of millennials, thought 2 million Jews died in the genocide; the actual number is 6 million. Forty-five percent of adults, and half of millennials, could not name a concentration camp or a Jewish ghetto.

All of this brings up the important question: What is the responsibility of schools to teach about the history of anti-semitism and the Holocaust?

A Patchwork of Standards

It’s a difficult question to answer, in part because it’s so hard to get a handle on what it is schools actually teach about the topic now. As most of you know, every state sets its own content standards for history and social studies, and there is no one repository that spells out what each of them requires. Multiply that confusion by the number of teachers and classrooms and it’s hard to get a sense of who is learning what.

Many states do have world history standards that include the origins and belief systems of the major religions, though the precise number of courses they take varies. And probably most teachers at least touch on the Holocaust as part of their units on World War II. But that’s a different thing from tracing the historical roots of anti-semitism all the way from the Middle Ages up through, for example, 19th century forgeries like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to current conspiracy theories surrounding figures like billionaire George Soros.

And not all states specifically mandate that schools address the Holocaust, or genocide more generally, in their classes, though there appears to be some efforts in this direction. Both Kentucky and Connecticut just this year passed legislation requiring districts to include the Holocaust in their social studies curriculum.

The gaps, though, are significant, for this reason: Jewish people in America aren’t equally distributed. A larger proportion live in the Northeast and the West, and far fewer in the Midwest. It is probably not surprising to see that education on Judaism and the Holocaust tend to show up in states where there’s a larger Jewish community. But arguably it’s those states with fewer Jewish people that need more explicit education to combat stereotypes and hate—and where young people may not realize that words they’re hearing in everyday politics these days, like “globalist,” are caught up in antisemitic discourse.

Below, you can find information for yourself on each state’s Jewish population and any laws it has on teaching the Holocaust. (The map doesn’t include states where the topic is encouraged or part of state standards, but not written into law.) You can toggle between the maps using the tabs.

Hate Speech on the Rise

It’s clear, too, that hate speech of all kinds appears to be on the rise, including within schools. A few months back, Francisco Vara-Orta took a deep dive into hate incidents in schools. In his review of 472 verified accounts over a two-year period, most incidents targeted black and Latino students, as well as those who are Jewish or Muslim.

The online news site Chalkbeat has a nice rundown of some curriculum projects offering teacher resources on addressing bias and hate in the classroom, such as Teaching Tolerance and Rethinking Schools. Here are some others to check out that specifically deal with the Holocaust.

Photo: A woman pays her respects at a makeshift memorial in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 29. —Matt Rourke/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.