Coincidentally…

January 27, 2005 at 11:07 pm | In yulelogStories | 6 Comments

A brief memo. Today (hence the title, Coincidentally) I realised that my kids (aged 10 and 13) have, since we moved here in 2002, completed the BC Social Studies curriculum for grades 7 and 8, and that the younger one has only 3 more papers to finish before she is done with grade 9, while the older one has 5 more papers to finish (all dealing with the economy of the Pacific Rim) before he is finished with grade 10, and not once in that span of 4 grades was the Holocaust Shoah even mentioned, much less discussed, described, analysed.

Shame on the official BC Social Studies curriculum. [see note, below]

My children know quite a bit about the Holocaust Shoah — factually, philosophically, epistemologically — because of who their parents are: we make sure they know. But god only knows what the average junior or senior high schooler, with a “history consciousness” mediated by popular culture, knows about epochal events like this.

Perhaps it’s a knowledge informed by a pastiche of moral condemnation (“a bad thing happened” + “those Nazis sure were extreme dudes, man”) coupled with a quantitative “understanding” of what happened (“the Nazis murdered x-nr. of people”). What’s missing in that combination of shallow pseudo-moral comprehension and quantitative emphasis is this: that the Holocaust Shoah is qualitatively unique, and that it represents an insoluble puzzle — a caesura in Western culture — which cannot be “communicated” by yet another piece of curriculum designed for easy swallowing. Does the BC curriculum avoid it for that reason? Who knows, but I doubt it. It’s probably more likely that the subject is avoided because it’s impossible to package, and that it’s therefore left to the discretion of individual teachers to bring it into the classroom. That’s not good enough, really.

There’s a lot of emphasis in secondary school on getting enough credits to graduate, but you cannot “get credit” for the Holocaust Shoah. This isn’t something you can substitute for something else in some module study. And there really are things in education that are worth being puzzles which can’t be solved. If you’re never confronted by them, you can graduate, but you’re not educated. There is something wrong with “education” that presents everything as yet another hoop, as yet another challenge, as yet another thing to substitute for something else so you can get the necessary credit for it …so you can move on to the next big thing. Real education should include giving learners puzzles that have no answer, least of all a quantitative answer.

Six million? Five? Twenty? No. That’s not the answer; the question (“Why? How?”) can’t be answered by a number.

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A small update, Jan.28: It’s probably a misrepresentation to speak of an “official BC curriculum,” although the curricula I refer to are approved BC Ministry of Education materials, and they are what distance learners at BC’s 9 public distance education schools are offered by way of history. It’s terrible stuff, and it reflects a larger issue of poor curricula on offer in schools, both distance/virtual and regular brick-and-mortar. Unless there’s a dedicated teacher in place who chooses to alter the provided materials and chooses to include an event as significant as the Shoah, the students will not cover this history during their “education.” In my opinion, they therefore have not been educated. Re. my striking out of the word holocaust, above, replacing it with the word Shoah, I’m prompted by an excellent article in OpenDemocracy, Words we live by: choice versus complicity, by Zsuzsanna Ardó. Among other things, she is a translator — all you “wordcentrics” should really read this article — and she pithily articulates the significance of the Shoah, thus:

…the etymology of the word “holocaust” reveals that its original meaning is “sacrifice consumed by fire”. It connotes a burnt offering or sacrificial killing in the service of a “higher” (spiritual, noble, or divine) purpose – even a form of redemption by proxy to achieve something benevolent for humanity.

The problem is that the events of the 1940s constituted the systematic, indeed industrialised, annihilation of fellow-humans. Now what exactly does that have to do with humanity?

“It’s just etymology; it’s just a word; it’s just common usage”, you might say. Well, exactly – that’s why it’s so important. We live also by words; they give unique insight into our attitudes, they contain subtexts and subliminal messages that can either aid or detract from understanding. The use of particular words, the easy resort to familiar (even if inaccurate) translations, can superimpose meaning on events and thus help to define and control much of our reality.

In the case of “holocaust”, the connotation of sacrifice or offering in relation to some divine meaning or purpose should disqualify the word from usage in relation to the Nazis’ atrocities. For their crime against humanity – even in the light of Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, or Saddam Hussein – is the ultimate weeping wound of the 20th century. After it, humanity’s self-image will never be the same again. [More…]

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Thanks for your comments, Melanie, Kate, Maria — I will respond (this post & the previous one, re. William Leiss’s seminars at PaCTaC), just give me a day or so to catch up on everything else around here!

Further note: I posted a related entry about curriculum issues on January 30/05.

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