Percentage of Americans who don't know about the Holocaust is "shocking and saddening"

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/09/16/percentage-of-americans-who-do.html

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Yeah, when you let a whole political party get away with generally opposing education as a public good, you end up with a bunch of fucking morons.

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In addition to degraded standards for public K-12 history curricula, the pathetic figure is more evidence about what happens when an event – even a momentous and horrible one – dies out of living memory.

The resurgence of right-wing populism in general is a related piece of evidence, one that isn’t limited to the U.S. and is cropping up in what should be the unlikeliest of places (this from today’s paper):

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Tara Westover gives provides good insight into how this happens.

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I wish I could say I’m surprised

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The problem isn’t that they are “morons”… the problem is that we have a political culture that wishes to disconnect and downplay our connections to the best, especially the messy, violent way in which we got to where we are today. History education that evolved along with the nation-state functions to reinforce that structure. It seeks to naturalize itself, so we inevitably get a narrative that downplays the violence and oppression in favor of a nicer, whitewashed version of historical processes. Anything that happened that was racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, homophobic, etc, etc, just gets waved away as “mistakes were made” and “we’ve learned from that”. They are also told in a way that doesn’t do full justice to how brutal, messy, and complicated events like the Holocaust (or the enslavement of Africans or the Genocide of indigenous people, etc) actually were, how connected to the past and the present they are.

In other words, as comforting as it would be think this is just a problem of ignorance or of the loudest and most vocal anti-intellectuals in our midst, there is something bigger that we need to tackle in order to help people really understand the past in a way that connects it to their lives right now and that helps them have empathy for others in the past and for people who aren’t themselves today.

We are talking about the same country that until recently was teaching that slavery wasn’t so bad, right?

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The US school system spends way WAY too much time on US history and barely any on the rest of the world. Not sure how many times my kids have to learn about the Mayflower and the Revolutionary War. Also I’m in Georgia, my kid alternates doing science one week and social studies the next week. They don’t learn those two subjects every day.

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Cliff Notes?

Is it because education has shifted to making test scores appear to be climbing, and not on critical thinking and comprehension?

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I’m not shocked that 2/3 don’t know anything about the Holocaust. I’m more shocked that 1/3 actually do have a passing acquaintance with it. Every study I’ve seen that measures the quality and depth of general knowledge of students today indicates that they somehow survive years of education without retaining even a modicum of factual retention of history and civics.

They don’t know how many branches of government we have. They can’t name their own Senators in their own state. They don’t know who won the Civil War. The list is endless.

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That’s a critical point, and one that ties into what I was saying about living memory. It’s much easier to connect young people to the horror of the Holocaust when there are a bunch of their all-American white grandpas around to talk directly to them about liberating the camps, and it was much harder for Germans to vote a significant portion of parliament to right-wing populist scum like AfD when there were a bunch of grandmas and grandpas who lived through the 30s and 40s around to ask if they were out of their minds.

It’s a difficult problem, one I’m sure that you consider on a regular basis as part of your profession.

I’m sure there are all too many American school districts that still take that approach. Those old Texas textbooks have a way of lingering like black mold in some schools.

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No party has done enough for education because the positive effects will only be felt at least a decade after.
How many problems do we have that have lack of education as at least part of it?

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When home schooling is often handled by fanatics and religious nuts, it’s no wonder that the general knowledge of their captive students is sorely deficient.

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This is typical of any public school in any country, I’d imagine. I used to teach teachers, and we went to the Museum of American History once. There was a group of Brits there, and we got to chat for a bit. I have lived in England for a bit, and so knew what I’d hear when I asked them to tell the teachers what they learned in school about US history. “Not much until WW2. It just isn’t that important in the grand scheme of our history until then. We didn’t learn much about Europe, except insofar as there were things that impacted us. Africa? Nothing. Asia? Nothing until the 19th century.” The US teachers were absolutely shocked. But it makes sense–k-12 is spent mostly teaching kids about their own history.

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What really concerns me is the passivity of some students. When there’s a lack of curiosity about anything beyond their own experience (or outright denial that things exist beyond that scope), it’s not clear how to create it. That attitude makes it too easy for groups with an agenda to fill their minds with misinformation. There has to be an interest in disputing what’s being fed to them, and it takes effort to look for other sources of information to compare with what’s being taught.

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Then again… The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation surveyed 41,000 Americans in all 50 states and Washington, DC. The results show that only 27 percent of those under the age of 45 demonstrate a basic knowledge of American history. And only four in 10 Americans passed the exam.

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Add to that the fact that one party has actively sabotaged K-12 education by underfunding it and undermining reality-based curricula for more than 40 years. California’s public K-12 public schools is still dealing with the devastating effects of Prop. 13, passed in 1978.

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When I was a kid outside DC, the system spent way WAY too much time on Virginia history and barely any on the rest of the country or the world. Could be that was the fault of the history teacher I had, who was from southern Virginia. I think she hated me for having “Yankee” (i.e., educated) parents. She treated me like crap.

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Agreed, but at the same time, how much of that is because the school systems are failing them (especially working class kids, especially students of color) from the beginning of their time in school? If you felt like a place you went every day was full of people who were hostile to you, why the hell would you be engaged? I very much remember feeling that way from about MS on up through HS. They didn’t have any interest in educating me or helping me reach my fullest potential, so why should I be engaged. I think we very much need to rethink education entirely from the ground up, because it’s not working for this changing economy and it’s not working for humanity.

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That’s only a small percentage of homeschoolers, just as not all people who send their kids to private school do so for religious reasons. Many of us have reasons to be upset and disappointed about the public school system, not just right wing nutjobs. Given that our tax dollars pay for k-12, we should all be invested in improvements that serve the public.

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In what way? Westover’s experience is not really typical of anyone but a tiny fraction of people, is it?