This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
In 1976, Facing History and Ourselves began as a 12-week unit for eighth graders, a capstone for their American History and Civics sequence. Its ﬁrst teachers, Margot Stern Strom 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, this history was scarcely taught in U.S. schools. It was represented—if at all—by a paragraph or at most a few pages near the end of the commonly used history and civics texts. As they 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 to think about the use and abuse of science, technology, propaganda, and state power, as
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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 not inevitable, and that the decisions of ordinary citizens and those they chose or permitted to 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 distinguish between patriotic loyalty and blind obedience and to stand up to hatred and injustice. 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 the importance of civic participation and social responsibility. Strom left the classroom in 1980 to begin the initial dissemination of the methods and materials that were inspired by her work with students and colleagues. This work, supported by a federal grant, led to the founding of the nonproﬁt organization Facing History 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 survivors and scholars, teachers and students, and experts in the emerging ﬁelds of moral development and moral education. This collective wisdom became the resource book Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior. Millions of students around the 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 amassed convincing 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 moral decision-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 understand that 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 and hopefully make the right ones. By studying the Holocaust, the result of ordinary choices by ordinary people, I realized that similar choices could present themselves to me and that I needed to act differently from the way people did then. But if I wanted things to turn out differently, it wouldn’t be enough for me alone to act differently—I had to help others do the same. That is why I decided to become a teacher. My goal is not to tell my students what they must do. My goal is to make sure that they can think and care.2
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. Henry Zabierek, the director 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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This curriculum is about more than the Holocaust. It’s about the reading and the writing and the arithmetic of genocide, but it’s also about such R’s as rethinking, reflecting, and reasoning. It’s about prejudice, discrimination and scapegoating; but it’s also about human dignity, morality, law, and citizenship. It’s about avoiding and forgetting, but it’s also about civic courage and justice. In an age of “back to basics” this curriculum declares that there is one thing more basic, more sacred, than any of the three R’s; namely, the sanctity of human life.3
As you embark on this Facing History journey with your students, we invite you to create your own rationale that inspires and guides the unique way you choose to incorporate our materials and methodology into your teaching practice.
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