Guatemala and the Case for Education About Genocide

05/22/2013 06:52 pm ET

In a startling twist of events, Guatemala's highest court overturned the recent ruling against former head of state, Efrain Rios Montt, on counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. When the guilty verdict was determined a couple weeks ago, joyful singing and dancing erupted outside the courthouse, and as war survivors filed out they were greeted by a line of cheering supporters. It was a tremendous, historical moment because it marked the first time a head of state was convicted of genocide in his or her own country.

But, as is often the case, political and economic interests loomed large. Powerful actors such as Guatemala's business federation, Cacif, lobbied for the case to be overturned. And for reasons that are still unclear, the court listened.

This dramatic shift deserves careful attention. The guilty ruling afforded a victory because it offered a way for justice to be served in other cases, and for reparations to ensue. It validated years of organizing and ceaseless truth telling that Guatemalan Mayan women and men had undertaken. And it mandated that when the Guatemalan case would be memorialized and taught, it had to be formally labeled for what it was: genocide.

With its most recent twists and turns, this case reminds the world of the significance of the ruling, as well as the political nature of what it means to name an atrocity "genocide."

The Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies hosted an international symposium in April on these very issues. We brought scholars, teachers, memorial site and center educators, and students from around the globe to ponder best practices for education about Holocaust and Genocide, and the ways that history, politics, and culture influence whether and how societies teach about genocide. We grappled with these questions because just as genocide itself is political, so is education undertaken in its name.

While there is widespread consensus that education about the Holocaust and genocide should be included in school curricula, there is stunningly little research on the purpose of such education and how to teach it. Should it be taught through a historical and contextual lens to educate youngsters about the past? Or should it be taught with the primary intention to raise compassion, or empathy, or maybe even fear? In short: should teachers aim to convey history or to instill values?

There is also little research about the best way to go about such teaching -- either in the classroom or at the all too many sites of genocide around the globe. What comparisons should be drawn between different cases of genocide, and what constitutes effective teaching in this area?

Think of U.S. classrooms in which Holocaust education is mandated in many states across the country. Children learn about Anne Frank or Schindler's list or those distant 'others' who were murdered. How many learn about Native American genocide? Or, now with the Guatemala case, how many students will learn of the role of the U.S. in the conflict, and the Reagan administration's unwavering commitment to Montt as an important ally?

At the symposium at Clark, we heard about how in Rwanda, educators who teach about the genocide are legally barred from speaking of ethnicity -- they can speak only of one nation, one people. General, not the particular. And in Turkey, where the Holocaust is taught widely, the Armenian Genocide is not. Indeed, denial is written into curricula and textbooks. In Cambodia, education about the Genocide by the Khmer Rouge has been introduced into textbooks only recently after a contested, political process.

The current president in Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molin, denied throughout the trial that genocide had occurred. But there is strong evidence that he himself is implicated. And so more work remains to be done. And it remains to be seen whether the victims of the genocide his country both permitted and endured will get justice.

What we do know is that regardless of the final verdict, as with other genocides, the challenge remains of learning how to teach about it. How to talk about it. And how to be ready to examine honestly the economic, social, and political intricacies. Revealing such linkages will pick away at a simple slogan such as "never again"; happily, it will raise many more questions for young people than offer pat answers.

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