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Introduction: Why Teach about the Holocaust and Human Behavior

Introduction: Why Teach about the Holocaust and Human Behavior

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Facing History and Ourselves has helped educators around the world recognize the importance of teaching students about the events leading up to the Holocaust. While the context of Germany from 1920–1945 was certainly unique, in this history we can still find themes that are familiar to us today—themes such as peer pressure, obedience, fear and self-preservation, opportunism, and prejudice. When students have a deeper understanding of how these factors influenced the choices made by individuals, groups and nations during the Holocaust, as well as the years that preceded this horrific tragedy, they gain a tool that can help them navigate their own moral universe.
Facing History and Ourselves has helped educators around the world recognize the importance of teaching students about the events leading up to the Holocaust. While the context of Germany from 1920–1945 was certainly unique, in this history we can still find themes that are familiar to us today—themes such as peer pressure, obedience, fear and self-preservation, opportunism, and prejudice. When students have a deeper understanding of how these factors influenced the choices made by individuals, groups and nations during the Holocaust, as well as the years that preceded this horrific tragedy, they gain a tool that can help them navigate their own moral universe.

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Published by: Facing History and Ourselves on May 26, 2009
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II. Why Teach About the Holocaust and Human Behavior?
In 1976, Facing History and Ourselves began as a 12-week unit for eighth graders, a cap-stone for their American History and Civics sequence. Its first teachers, Margot SternStrom and William Parsons, teamed up during a workshop that urged the inclusion of the history of the Holocaust in the middle and high school curricula. At the time, thishistory was scarcely taught in U.S. schools. It was represented—if at all—by a paragraphor at most a few pages near the end of the commonly used history and civics texts. Asthey thought about the failures that led to the Holocaust, they realized how important it was for students to understand the fragility of democracy. They wanted their students tothink about the use and abuse of science, technology, propaganda, and state power, as
Introduction
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 well as about the possibilities for international cooperation to prevent the recurrence of genocidal violence. They wanted their students to be keenly aware that history was notinevitable, and that the decisions of ordinary citizens and those they chose or permittedto lead could change its direction. They wanted to ensure that their students learned how to do what too many in Germany and throughout the world had failed to do—to distin-guish between patriotic loyalty and blind obedience and to stand up to hatred and injus-tice. Through teaching their own students about the events leading up to the Holocaust,Strom and Parsons discovered how this history was crucial to any teaching about theimportance of civic participation and social responsibility.Strom left the classroom in 1980 to begin the initial dissemination of the methods andmaterials that were inspired by her work with students and colleagues. This work, sup-ported by a federal grant, led to the founding of the nonprofit organization FacingHistory and Ourselves. With the support of the dissemination grant, the content of the program was continually enhanced by the advice and testimony of psychologists and psychiatrists, Holocaust sur-vivors and scholars, teachers and students, and experts in the emerging fields of moraldevelopment and moral education. This collective wisdom became the resource book 
Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior 
. Millions of students aroundthe world have used the resources in this book, enabling us to learn about the impact of studying the events leading to the Holocaust. Over the past 30 years, we have amassedconvincing evidence that an in-depth study of the choices made by individuals, groups,and nations that resulted in the Holocaust is one way to help students develop as moraldecision-makers and thoughtful community members. These findings are summed up by the reflections of former Facing History student and current Facing History teacher,Rafael Castillo:
 When I took the Facing History course back in 8th grade, it helped me understandthat history was a part of me and that I was a part of history. If I understood why people made the choices they did, I could better understand how I make choices andhopefully make the right ones. By studying the Holocaust, the result of ordinary choices by ordinary people, I realized that similar choices could present themselves tome and that I needed to act differently from the way people did then. But if I wantedthings to turn out differently, it wouldn’t be enough for me alone to act differently—Ihad to help others do the same. That is why I decided to become a teacher. My goal isnot to tell my students what they must do. My goal is to make sure that they canthink and care.
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Facing History and Ourselves has helped educators around the world recognize theimportance of teaching students about the events leading up to the Holocaust. While thecontext of Germany from 1920–1945 was certainly unique, in this history we can stillfind themes that are familiar to us today—themes such as peer pressure, obedience, fearand self-preservation, opportunism, and prejudice. When students have a deeper under-standing of how these factors influenced the choices made by individuals, groups andnations during the Holocaust, as well as the years that preceded this horrific tragedy, they gain a tool that can help them navigate their own moral universe. Henry Zabierek, thedirector of social studies in Brookline, Massachusetts, answered the question, “Why study Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior?” in this way:
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