More than 30 states now recommend or require Holocaust or genocide studies in their public schools and Kentucky might join them. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports on how a current bill came about and the controversies surrounding teaching about genocide in public schools.
Thea Prak came to the United States when she was thirteen years old. She spent her childhood in concentration camps and running from soldiers and bandits to escape Cambodia when it was ruled by the Khmer Rouge. She later lived in refugee camps in neighboring Thailand.
When she came to this country, she cried every night and didn’t want to talk about her past.
Now, she’s 37 and living in South Louisville. She works with other native Cambodians in the region to organize celebrations and often speaks publicly about her childhood. She wants people to understand that genocide is not rare. She knows from her own experiences and seeing television images from other parts of the world. They trigger memories that haunt her.
“Every time I dream about going to Cambodia I see that little girl crying, trying to find a way out,” she says. “And I see this kid, and I see Darfur, Rwanda. I see these people and I say, ‘Oh my God.’ I cry, because that is me and my family all over again, you know, just like walking.”
On the city’s East side, students at the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School have a dream of their own: to make genocide studies available to teachers and students throughout the state. These students have been studying the Holocaust and other genocides with their teacher, Fred Whitaker.
“Let’s pick up that discussion,” he says to them. “Why in the world would you want to introduce middle school students to the absolute weakest points of humanity? How do we go from a person who is capable of joking about a different race, a different group? How do we become the people that can create genocide? And I’ll open it up to the class.”
One student responds: “I’m sure that there are people in our class who have gone to people’s houses and brought somebody up and gossiped about them. We’ve learned that we’ve made those mistakes and we’ve become bigger people learning about our habits and how our indifference affects people around us.”
These students and Whitaker worked with State Representative Mary Lou Marzian to propose a law that would help create lessons about genocide for primary and secondary school students. Last month, they testified about the legislation during a committee meeting of Kentucky’s House of Representatives. The House later passed it and it now awaits action from the State Senate’s Education Committee.
For Whitaker, this legislation is timely.
“This is the first generation that has genocide daily on their televisions or their computers,” he says. “We’ve exposed them to the human capacity to do this sort of violence in an organized fashion, but we have yet to respond and say why you shouldn’t do this and how you can prevent it.”
Learning more about genocide is something film maker Socheata Poeuv thinks would have benefited her. While she learned some history of the Holocaust as a child, she didn’t know much about the genocide in Cambodia. Her parents escaped the country when her mother was pregnant with her. She learned about the genocide and her family’s history only as an adult. The knowledge led her to visit Cambodia with her parents and produce “New Year Baby,” a documentary showing at the Kentucky Center tonight.
“We really as a public have to think about what our education is for,” she says. “And if our education doesn’t provide its citizens some general knowledge, basic knowledge about what it means to have a conscience, about what it means to be a responsible citizen, then I don’t think we’ve really done our job in educating our citizens.”
Many education groups agree. In recent years, the National Council for the Social Studies has held sessions on teaching about genocide. Members of Kentucky’s Association of Teachers of History support covering the subject.
Teaching about genocide in public schools has its critics though. Neil McCluskey is a policy analyst with the CATO Institute who wrote the study “Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict.” He thinks the subject breeds division. He sees dilemmas in teaching about conflicts and genocide. For instance, Turkey maintains that the deaths of Armenians that began in 1915 under the Ottoman Empire weren’t genocide. Armenians and most historians disagree.
“You can’t boil down most of the controversies that go on in history into a simple story line that is going to satisfy all the different groups who have things to say in what are often unresolved conflicts,” he says.
McCluskey believes teaching genocide accentuates differences and undermines his view of education’s main goal — to form productive contributors to society who can take care of themselves and their families.
“It’s a reality and not teaching it is bowing to a perverse political correctness, says Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University and author of “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.” She says not teaching genocide politicizes education.
“If kids grow up knowing the basics but having no understanding of world history or of American history then they’re going to be not very good citizens and they’re going to be uninformed about the word they live in and also uninformed about the depths of depravity that people are capable of,” she says.
Meanwhile, Fred Whitaker and his students at St. Francis of Assisi say they are prepared to return to Frankfort to speak with Kentucky Senators to help the bill become law.
Having survived genocide, Thea Prak thinks this legislation is important. “Genocide is not something that you want to know,” she says, “but it’s a history that we can learn from.”