November 15, 2018

Mandate an End to Holocaust Ignorance

A recent Claims Conference study that showed Americans’ knowledge of the Holocaust was unexpectedly low, particularly among millennials, drew national attention but should come as no surprise.

The survey revealed that 66 percent of millennials could not identify what “Auschwitz” was, and 41 percent thought that 2 million or fewer Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

Although the figures are startling, the detail of history becomes less relevant to subsequent generations as events recede into the past. It is not young people’s fault they don’t know these facts; the fault primarily lies with the people who decide what is important to teach them. The survey is not an indictment of a lazy millennial generation, but of an uneven educational environment.

The problem is not new. A survey conducted by Peter Shulman in 1992 showed similar patterns of ignorance. At the time, 38 percent of respondents could not identify Auschwitz, compared with the 41 percent in this most recent survey. A quarter of a century on and we are worse off.

Students will not spontaneously start reading about Auschwitz — they need structure.

There is no lack of organizations and teaching resources that can provide young people with the knowledge they need about the Holocaust. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a national remit funded by the federal government. There are scores of Holocaust centers and online resources such as “Echoes and Reflections,” a curriculum supported by the Anti-Defamation League, Yad Vashem and the USC Shoah Foundation (which I run). There are enough teaching resources for every child to know precisely what Auschwitz was, how many Jews were murdered during the Holocaust and much more.

So, how do we close the gap between the obvious need for students to learn and the provision of educational support and resources to meet that need? We need to come up with a national plan. More states must mandate teaching about the Holocaust, more school district supervisors must ensure compliance of such mandates, and more principals need to understand that teaching about the Holocaust is an opportunity to educate and engage students with much more than knowledge alone.

A well-organized, well-funded lobby is needed to achieve this goal.

Ivy Schamis, who teaches a semester of Holocaust studies at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was in class, using the USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness platform the day Nikolas Cruz shot and killed two of her students.  The students in her class talk about the meaning of Auschwitz in the contemporary world. Schamis told me the Holocaust class was introduced because of a state mandate, and the school’s principal also was intent on ensuring the school’s curriculum made the most of the opportunity to expose students to complex world issues.

Almost all of the students who have gained national prominence for their involvement in responding to the shooting took the Holocaust class. Cruz did not.

Of course, it is not only important what students learn, but what they do with what they learn. I accompanied Schamis to the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., where one of her students told me: “We were in her class learning about hate, and then seconds later we experienced it first-hand.” The Parkland students had already thought through what it meant to counter hate. He told me the classroom they were in had a “Never Forget” poster. It’s no coincidence they chose the hashtag #neveragain for their campaign. They had lived the idea of “Never again” in Schamis’ class.

We have two options. Either we shake our heads at the latest survey results and decry the ignorance of the younger generation, or we begin a serious and concerted effort to ensure that there is a plan for states to implement mandates as well as online Holocaust training for teachers.

Students will not spontaneously start reading about Auschwitz — they need structure. And educators need a plan for implementing that structure. Either that, or 25 years from now we will be seeing the same survey results all over again — only worse.


Stephen D. Smith is the Finci Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.