My favorite class from high school is being cut.
There are few courses that I remember fondly. Whether disillusioned geriatric teachers or bland curriculums revolving around standardized testing goals are to blame is up for debate. But I was devastated to see the following message posted on Facebook the other day by one of the best teachers I've ever had:
Well I figured I better share here... after 7 years of teaching so many amazing students the Holocaust and Genocide Studies course, the class isn't going to be offered anymore. This is due primarily to budget cuts and tough choices made by administration (struggling with funding choices)... I thank you for an amazing 7 years sharing my passion with each of you. It's been an amazing honor!
He then implored students to write him letters documenting their positive experiences in the course as a last-ditch effort to petition the district. I was devastated -- this was one of the only classes in high school that actually asked me to engage with it beyond the basic book report or Powerpoint presentation. Thus I wrote the following letter:
To Whom It May Concern,
I'm a professional magazine writer and editor living in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was enrolled in the class Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Fall 2006. It recently came to my attention that this course is to be cut from the school curriculum, which compelled me to write in and insist that you reconsider.
It's no secret that public school funding doesn't exactly grow on trees, but if you're looking to cut classes, I beg that you leave Holocaust and Genocide Studies unscathed. Nearly 90 percent of the courses I took in high school were survey classes that could barely afford to spend more than a day on any major topic, which means that hardly any of the material was actually retained. In freshman history, we covered topics like the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression in the span of two or three days. I remember being asked to practice rote memorization of acronyms of New Deal programs instated by the FDR Administration, and today I can barely recall a single one.
But I can still tell you how many Jewish people were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust (6 million). I can still tell you the name of the man who coined the term genocide (Raphael Lemkin) and when (1944). I can even recall the name of the Cambodian dictator and leader of the Khmer Rouge who slaughtered his own people in the late 70s (Pol Pot). But more than that, I remember discussing the nature of prejudice and the precarious social conditions that drive one group to slaughter another. I can still visualize the images of emaciated children behind chain-link fences, and the symbolic significance of a 20-foot high stack of abandoned shoes. I recall engaging in passionate debates over the omnipotence paradox, and contemplating Hannah Arendt's phrase 'the banality of evil' from her book Eichmann in Jerusalem -- a text so rich and dense that I didn't revisit it again until studying journalism as a graduate student at Northwestern University.
Why do I remember so much? Because Holocaust and Genocide Studies is a course that inherently intertwines education with empathy. You have no idea how much being emotionally invested in the material can actively engage a student in his or her own education. Not only were the photographs, readings, videos and lectures both powerful and provocative, but the class itself inspires students to be more than just a passive observer in history. By bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, the class becomes more than just a semester-long high school course or a letter on a report card. We're fulfilling a duty as first-world citizens living in a post-Holocaust era: to remember what happened. To Never Forget.
I sure as hell haven't.
Unfortunately, it sounds like what the district really needs to keep this course afloat is cash, and these letters are only printed on computer paper, not blank checks. Regardless of the fate of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, let this episode stand as yet another tragedy in the tome of public education funding.