Holocaust lesson: Reps should keep their hands off curriculum

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The Holocaust is one of the singular events of human history. Other mass exterminations of people have occurred across the ages but nothing that matches the immense scale and the modern industrial process that the killings entailed. Students should know the depths of depravity plumbed under Adolf Hitler’s reign in Germany.

Given the dismal state of historical knowledge these days, it is not surprising to read in a recent Post-Gazette story that ignorance about events that should never be forgotten is easy to find among public school students. But does that mean that elected officials must intervene to require their schools to teach the subject?

Two bills address the subject of Holocaust studies. House Bill 176, which sits in the Education Committee, would mandate courses on the Holocaust.

But HB 1424 doesn’t go that far. It says that school districts may, if they choose, teach such courses. In fact, school districts already have that power, so the votes taken were symbolic, putting lawmakers on record as saying that such courses are desirable.

HB 1424 passed the House 190-13. But an amendment was offered to make Holocaust courses required, not optional, and that failed on a tie vote of 99-99. The lawmakers who voted no had reason to be cautious.

For one thing, they are right to be concerned about the number of mandates that Harrisburg puts on public schools to burden the lives of administrators. But we have another concern: Politicians can’t entirely be trusted and so they should leave curriculum matters to the professionals.

While Holocaust studies are generally a good idea, this is a slippery slope. Holocaust today, Armenian massacre tomorrow, the Khmer Rouge depravities down the road. This is not imaginary. In past years, some states legislated courses on the Irish famine of 1845-1850, the better to make the British look bad among constituents who don’t like the British. And don’t get us started on the lawmakers who want creationism to be taught in science classes.

While some basic state standards are desirable, Pennsylvania has 500 school districts with board members elected by the people. The logic of that local control argues for giving school boards the discretion to make decisions like this.

In that regard, an irony lurks here that provides the final caution. The Holocaust happened because the power of the state usurped the liberty of the people.

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