June 16, 2023

Boaz Dvir: I see public schools failing to give students the historical knowledge they need to keep our democracy strong

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Boaz Dvir is an assistant professor of journalism at Penn State. He’s also the grandson of Holocaust survivors, and he sees a growing gap in education these days.

At least 36 states have halted or are seeking the legal means to stop teachers from examining racism in their classrooms.

School districts around the country have banned books about issues ranging from racism to the Holocaust to the LGBTQ community. Parent groups have campaigned to restrict the instruction of such difficult topics as slavery.

Moms for Liberty, and other groups and individuals opposing the instruction of some of these topics, say they’re protecting children from divisive, identity-shaming, indoctrinating and pornographic material.

In my view, some segments of American society are turning their backs on history.

That comes at a cost. I’ve seen it firsthand. I direct Penn State programs – the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative and the Hammel Family Human Rights Initiative – that give my colleagues and me a real-time glimpse into the vulnerable state of K-12 instruction about difficult topics.

Many educators have been shying away from sensitive issues. The 2022 American Instructional Resources Survey, a survey about teachers’ views on what they can teach, by Rand Education and Labor, which focuses on school and education issues, shows the new and proposed state laws restricting the instruction of difficult topics made a quarter of the country’s 4 million teachers hesitant or downright scared to teach those subjects. This was true even when the educators taught in a state that had not at the time proposed or enacted such a law.

As a result, research shows, students may be deprived of vital lessons such as the global persistence of crimes against humanity and the factors that give rise to genocides.

Some of the gaps are alarming.

Many Americans born between between 1981 and 2012, according to a 2020 Schoen Consulting national poll, lack “basic knowledge” of the Nazis’ murder of 6 million Jews and millions of people with disabilities, homosexuals, Romani and members of other oppressed groups. About two-thirds of respondents grossly underestimated the number of Hitler’s Jewish victims and knew little to nothing about the world’s largest-ever death camp, Auschwitz.

Read the full essay here. 

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