Politicians, experts advocate for Holocaust studies


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The question: "Which country was Adolf Hitler the leader of?"

The answer: "I think it's Amsterdam?"

With a video camera and a microphone, Rhonda Fink-Whitman, a Bucks County writer and television and radio personality, was at four Pennsylvania university campuses in September to quiz a few dozen students on their knowledge of the Holocaust and World War II.

"I just grabbed anyone walking by," said Mrs. Fink-Whitman, a former radio reporter and QVC shopping network host who is among a chorus of voices pushing for mandatory Holocaust education in Pennsylvania schools. The only screening question she asked the students prior to the impromptu history exam was whether they had gone to public school in Pennsylvania.

Basic queries -- "What was the Holocaust?" "Where did it start?" "About how many years ago?" -- elicited a stream of "I don't knows." One student guessed that World War II happened 300 years ago and another stated that Normandy, the French coastal region invaded by the Allies, is "near England and Germany and all that jazz."

The responses, which she posted in a YouTube video, were "unfortunate" but not unexpected, said Mrs. Fink-Whitman, who conducted the interviews at Penn State, Drexel, Temple and the University of Pennsylvania, after she found out that the friends of her college-age children couldn't identify Winston Churchill.

"These kids were embarrassed that they didn't know more and they felt bad about it," said Mrs. Fink-Whitman, who wrote "94 Maidens," a book about her's mother's survival of the Holocaust. "It's our fault, because we haven't taught them in Pennsylvania."

Five states -- California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and New York -- mandate Holocaust education, and a bill that would encourage, but not require, schools to teach about the mass slaughter of 6 million Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazi regime that ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945, is currently in the Pennsylvania Senate.

State Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Philadelphia, says HB 1424, by Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, is a "watered-down" version of the bill he has been pushing for the past two legislative sessions.

Mr. Boyle's bill, HB 176, languishes in the House Education Committee and he unsuccessfully attempted to introduce an amendment this summer that would make Mr. Clymer's measure mandatory. The House deadlocked, 99-99, on Mr. Boyle's amendment, meaning it failed by a single vote.

"One of the things we hear consistently ... is we put a lot of mandates on schools," said Mr. Clymer, noting that standardized testing, teacher evaluations and required professional training -- among other state and federal impositions -- amount to an increasing burden.

Mr. Clymer says he "feels strongly" that Holocaust education should happen in every school but said legislators are "between a rock and a hard place" in weighing new requirements for schools.

"After a few years, if it seems as though school districts are not doing it, I would not object to anyone putting in an amendment to make it mandatory. ... God forbid we ever see another Hitler come on the scene," Mr. Clymer said. "I'm sure there are schools that do not teach this."

Mr. Boyle rejected that argument, noting that hundreds of mandates already dictate what schools must teach.

"I think if Arbor Day is important enough to teach in our schools, certainly the Holocaust is important enough to teach as well," Mr. Boyle said.

Mrs. Fink-Whitman hopes the Senate will amend the bill to give it more teeth, adding that the last Holocaust survivors and soldiers who saw the horrors of the concentration camps firsthand are fading away.

Jim Lucot, who teaches honors U.S. history at Seneca Valley High School, is also a member of the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council and won an international award in 2009 from the Jewish Federation for the Righteous in New York City based on the in-depth curriculum he developed on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

He said he "absolutely" supports a mandate to correct what he called an educational deficit, noting that teaching the Holocaust can help inform anti-bullying programs that are a major initiative of many school systems.

"It's a shame when you have to say mandatory Holocaust education, because it's the history of hate," said Mr. Lucot, 47. "It answers all your questions."

A lack of knowledge about the Holocaust could be symptomatic of larger educational shortcomings.

Just 12 percent of high school seniors in 2010 scored at or above "proficient" in U.S. history, according to the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education.

"By and large, we see when we're in high schools and middle schools that kids are not well-versed in history, civics and geography, among other subjects," said Joy Braunstein, director of the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which offers training, direct teaching and other help to school systems in Western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia looking to expand their Holocaust education.

When it comes to the Holocaust, "it's fair to say in many places it's not being taught," she said, noting that the Monessen School District, for example, had "absolutely no background" in the Holocaust prior to the center's involvement.

The center is also in talks with Pittsburgh Public Schools, which teaches the Holocaust in 10th grade world history and provides an opportunity for students to go to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to improve the depth and scope of instruction on the subject.

Barbara Burstin, who teaches courses on the Holocaust at University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, said her students exhibit a wide range of background knowledge, from those who are passionate about the subject to others who enrolled as a curiosity.

A common thread, however, is what she called an "appalling" lack of basic historical knowledge.

"I don't know if they're teaching history anymore," she said. "They don't know who fought in World War II."

Ms. Burstin worried that bundling history under the banner of "social studies" and giving it increasingly short shrift could create a generation of "technocrats" with no understanding of the past.

"History can inform and history can teach us and history can help shape us. We need to know what has gone right and what has gone wrong," Ms. Burstin said. "I want students to understand they have responsibilities, to first be informed and to stand up to injustice."

Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909.


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