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As an educator and the descendant of Holocaust survivors, I observe a lack of historical education in public schools that threaten the strength of our democracy.


The Florida Department of Education announced on April 10, 2023 that it had rejected 35% of social studies publishers submitted for approval and use in state public schools. The move was based on a determination in the books contain references to social justice issues “and other information” inconsistent with Florida law.

The decision received a lot of media attention. But it was just the latest in a series of efforts across the country to restrict students’ access to books, classes and courses on certain historical and social topics, often about race.

At least 36 states have stopped or look for the legal means to quit teachers to investigate racism in their classrooms.

School districts across the country have forbidden books on topics ranging from racism to the Holocaust to the LGBTQ community. Parent groups have campaigned to limit the instruction of such difficult subjects as slavery.

Mothers for freedomand other groups and individuals who oppose the instruction of some of these topics say they protect children from divisive, identity-shaming, indoctrination, and pornographic materials.

In my opinion, some segments of American society are turning their backs on history.

That costs money. I’ve seen it firsthand. I direct Penn State programs – the Initiative for Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education and the Human rights initiative of the Hammel family — which give my colleagues and me a real-time glimpse into the fragile state of K-12 education on difficult topics.

Many educators have been avoid sensitive issues. The 2022 U.S. Instructional Sources Studya survey of teachers’ views on what they can teach Rand Education and Laborwhich focuses on school and education issues shows that the new and proposed state laws restricting the teaching of difficult subjects will kill a quarter of the the country’s 4 million teachers hesitant or downright afraid to teach those subjects. This was true even when the educators taught in a state that had not proposed or enacted such a law at the time.

As a result, research shows, students may be deprived of essential lessons such as the global persistence of crimes against humanity and the the factors that give rise to genocides.

As a documentary filmmaker and university lecturer in journalism, I often discuss difficult topics with students. After a global university screening of my upcoming documentary “Cojot”, which tells the story of Holocaust survivor Michel Cojot’s quest in the 1970s to kill his father’s Nazi executioner, two students apologetically approached me and said, “We have never heard of this before.”

Studies show that 4 in 10 young Americans know very little about the Holocaust.

To embarrass them, I noticed the obscurity of the main character. Therefore I made this movieI said.

Shaking their heads, the students emphasized that they had ‘never heard of this before’.

They were talking about the holocaust.

As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I felt disturbed. As a teacher, I wondered if we weren’t giving students the knowledge and insight they need to survive and thrive in a 21st century democracy.

Precious ignorance

Many Americans born between 1981 and 2012, according to one National poll of Schoen Consulting 2020, have no “basic knowledge” of the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews and millions of people with disabilities, homosexuals, Romani and members of other oppressed groups. About two-thirds of the respondents grossly underestimated the number of Jewish victims of Hitler and knew little or nothing about the world’s largest extermination camp ever. Auschwitz.

Students and others attend a rally outside City Hall in Orlando, Florida, to protest Florida’s education policy.
Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ignorance also plagues other difficult subjects.

In May 2023, the National Center for Education Statistics released a report showing that eighth graders understand it American history And social studies has reached an all-time low.

The report revealed that by 2022, only 13% of eighth graders understood historic American events like the Civil War, a 5 percentage point drop from 2018.

Few children and adults realize this Europeans enslaved millions of indigenous peoples across America. The understanding of African slavery is almost as superficial. Nine out of 10 high school students who have a 2018 Southern Poverty Law Center study failed to recognize slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.

Most of the survey’s adult respondents urged better preparation for those teaching students about slavery.

K-12 educators agree. They repeatedly told my colleagues and me they need intensive training and strong support to teach sensitive topics effectively.

Book bans right and left

Since it started tracking in 2021, PEN America, which focuses on freedom of expression in literature, has counted more than 4,000 book bans in the US

Are Report March 2023 showed a year-over-year jump of 28.5% in the number of banned books nationwide.

Banned books range from Toni Morrison’s “Lover”, a fictional story of freed enslaved people, to “Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girla non-fiction account of a Jewish girl’s life under Nazi occupation.

While banning books seems to be a product of our polarized era, it dates back to colonial times. These prohibitions were last popular in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president.

Limitations in the classroom

Attempts to limit what is taught in the classroom also include bills that block or limit the instruction of certain sensitive issues.

Teenage girls and boys, some in face masks, stand together holding signs opposing a ban on critical race theory.
Students opposing a critical ban on race theory at their school hold signs with anti-prohibition language at a school board meeting in Placentia, California, March 23, 2022.
Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Most bills enacted by or making their way through 36 state legislators promise it punish educators and districts who teach prohibited subjects through disciplinary action, budget cuts, and criminal prosecution. Floridas 2022 Parental rights in education lawfor example, warns educators not to teach K-3 students about racism and sexual orientation or face jail time.

Some of the new efforts are unlikely to have any practical effect on primary education. While 49 state legislatures seek to ban the teaching of critical race theories, school districts are rarely included the graduate-level academic concept in their curricula.

However, some such legal prohibitions can widen the gap between what Democratic citizens need to know and what they learn in school. For decades, many democracy experts have argued that democracy suffers when officials hinder instruction on difficult topics and profits when they stand behind it:

History has shown – and in recent years citizens themselves – that democracy suffers if they are not informed. We need look no further than the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. People who had no understanding of the US election process participated in such acts as riot, seditious conspiracy and more during an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

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