Interview and Article by:
Josha Sietsma, Netherlands (MTF 2015)
In upstate New York, with twenty inches of snow, and drifts up to the shoulders, Jeffrey Parker (Farmington, NY; MTF 2013) takes some time for a conversation about French philosopher, Michel Foucault, the Holocaust, and teaching. Jeff is currently pursuing his PhD in education at the University of Rochester. His main research interest is Holocaust education: How do national metanarratives and power relations impact the social construction of Holocaust education in the United States and European settings? In the United States, there is, in many cases, the ‘heroic narrative’ that impacts history classrooms and impacts the ‘story’ that is told. In Europe, a very different construct exists, depending on a nation’s role in the war and their collaboration. As a result, how are the purposes and aims of this education affected?
Your PhD is in education, with a research focus of Holocaust education in particular; please share with us what got you started.
Holocaust education is an interesting and evolving field. It’s such a great and rich area for study and education development. I’m mainly interested in how this evolving understanding of the Holocaust – as we move into three or four generations removed from the Holocaust itself – is constructed in classrooms. Especially considering all of the focus on tests and standards from schools, governments, museums, etc. The biggest thing I’ve seen, and to me it’s most disturbing, is the fact that a lot of teachers don’t have and can’t take the time to do a deep teaching of the Holocaust. We see a lot of surface-level teaching in Holocaust education. That eventually leads to the idea, amongst students, and some teachers, that the Holocaust was inevitable; all Germans were Nazis, all Germans hated Jews, and that Jews meekly went to the slaughter. Shallow teaching can lead to a really simple narrative lacking the necessary context and often being misconstrued.
One of the ways we have, as educators, to combat this [the simplistic narrative], is by adhering to the Guidelines. Recently, as part of my research, I examined the “genealogy” of the Museum Guidelines: what historical, social, and political forces influenced their creation, aims, and purposes? It’s not really a history per se, more of tangled spider web of overlapping events and ideas…There’s a lot of theory that gets involved when analyzing something like this, but the upshot is that the Guidelines have had a tremendously powerful and positive impact in structuring and normalizing the field of Holocaust education. For many years, Holocaust education focused on simulations and connecting the Holocaust with contemporary events, but too often, skipped over the hard reality – the facts – of individuals, choices, and events that made the Holocaust a particular event.
When first authored, the Guidelines served as a critique of these methods and proposed a practice that would steer educators away from poor methodological choices. Within the Guidelines, there are five broad areas that are addressed: defining the Holocaust, the disciplinary / historian approach, the importance of language, sources of information and focus of instruction, and comparisons of individuals and pain. What’s interesting is that they [the Guidelines] invite the students and teachers to work together in order to create their understanding of the Holocaust. This understanding though is rooted in a close study of primary documents, testimony, meetings with survivors…all things that are contextualized and lead to a nuanced, more accurate understanding.
Why should teachers take more time to teach about the Holocaust?
Time gives people the possibility to broaden their way of thinking and deepen their understanding. I hear people ask questions like,“Why should we study the Holocaust? It didn’t happen in America, why should I care? Why should we hear about this again?” My general response is: “It’s still happening. Look at Burma, Central African Republic, Syria, Sudan. The simple fact is: it’s still happening.” The Holocaust is a rich case study from which we can learn so much; a watershed moment in human history: an entire mechanism within a political movement focused on the elimination of a group of people. If we skip over this examination, if we don’t take the time to consider this unique event, we’re missing an opportunity and not respecting the memory of millions of people.
What made you want to teach about the Holocaust?
When I started teaching, I had little-to-no-background in the Holocaust. As a student, when I was in high school, in the 1980s, Holocaust education was new with barely any curriculum. The term ‘Holocaust’ was just becoming familiar to the American public and my teachers didn’t touch on the subject at all.
I started teaching twenty years ago in a school for special education students. They were all tenth graders and one of the books that was studied was Elie Wiesel’s testimony, Night. If there was an emotional response from my students at the time, I would be satisfied, feeling like I got through to them. Looking back, I feel embarrassed, but that’s what I did.
Students always had questions on the subject and I didn’t have the answers, so I started reading more about the Holocaust. For every answer that I found, two more questions arose. And as time went on, I changed my approach. I focused more on the historical, the disciplinary approach. Looking at the event from the psychology of evil. I really wanted to understand the context and in my search for more, I started meeting more people such as the folks at the Museum, the Holocaust Educators Network (in New York), and the USC Shoah Foundation. This had a tremendous effect on my teaching. It became much more about building an understanding that had personal meaning but was also accurate. It wasn’t necessary to use horrible images.
For a lot of us engaged in this work, at some point, this switch inside flips and you decide: “This is what I need to do.” It’s (teaching the Holocaust) hard at times. I realized at some point though, we’re losing opportunities, we haven’t effectively learned from the past.
Currently, I have a group of 20 seniors in a Genocide and Justice class. We begin with about ten weeks on the Holocaust, then focus on Raphael Lemkin, the genocide convention, contemporary genocide and people who are trying to work against genocide through rule of law. We work with a lot of primary documents, talk with survivors, meet with people over Skype, and try to delve deeply into the subject.
What do you think we should learn?
That’s tough because there’s not just one lesson. It’s (genocide) still going on. There must be more effective ways to deal with contemporary genocide and that means today’s youth need to know about this and not feel powerless. We need to educate. People need to know about the history. These are not aberrations. The perpetration isn’t done by extraordinary people, it’s done by everyday, average, ordinary individuals. We need to know this, but we like to believe that we aren’t capable.
You mentioned that this work can be “hard”, have you ever collaborated with others in the field?
The biggest collaboration has been working with people who share similar interests in Holocaust education. That’s what drove me to become a Museum Teacher Fellow. I remember that when I met other MTFs in my cohort, my reaction was: “Wow, I found my tribe!” People with similar views, questions, and interests that also helped broaden my world immensely. There is also collaboration in the classroom: just coming in and lecturing is not sufficient. There needs to be collaboration in the classroom between teacher and student. If I don’t think about it as collaborating with my students and I only see them as receivers of information, then it’s all for naught. We need to work together in the classroom and come to an accurate and useful understanding that is constructed from our knowledge. I need to know who my students are. “Who am I working with here? How am I going to teach this time?” In order to be an effective teacher, I must collaborate with people in the Holocaust field, the education field, and my students.
The interview comes full-circle with a question similar to the first: “A doctoral degree in Holocaust education and the focus on power relations and heroic narratives…” Jeff asks if I’m familiar with the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault. I am, so after a short conversation on Foucault, I ask him to tell us how Foucault and the Museum came together for him.
Foucault, in his philosophy, focuses on the power relations, its driving forces, and who has access to information. What drives history and events and what gives events and people the power to achieve? In our classroom our power is our language. That means that we need to be aware of how we use this language!
I’ve wondered for a while how now about how the Guidelines came together. The requirements for one of my courses allowed me to pursue this interest and delve into their background. Foucault’s theoretical lens was appropriate for this as he suggests that social constructs don’t come together in a linear fashion, but rather result from innumerable factors and powerful forces. This is very true of the Guidelines.
An example of one of those perplexing questions that challenges power and story: “Why didn’t we (the United States) bomb the railways in order to stop the transports?” Even with our government knowing about the railways but making the choice not to bomb is an intriguing example of how a narrative will not fit in the average classroom. The bigger question that remains is “why doesn’t this fit the narrative?” What forces determine what is taught and what is not addressed?
Another heroic, but simplistic, narrative sounds something like:In an effort to teach about liberation, many facts are glossed over and the student understanding may be: “US forces liberated all of the camps, even the extermination camps.” But the truth is, the US forces did not liberate any extermination camps. We need to understand what was really happening. Also skipped over, far too often, is the fact that Antisemitism existed in the United States with people such as Henry Ford sponsoring the publishing of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. What is the real narrative? The Guidelines create space for us to do so.
And practically, when one looks at the Museum’s guidelines, the “avoid comparisons of pain” is really important and what separates this from other topics. We need to make sure that our students understand that the victims were individuals. That makes it real. Just as the seminal quote in the Museum, from Abel Herzberg, says “There were not six million Jews murdered; there was one murder, six million times.” This didn’t happen overnight and people made choices every step of the way.