Stop the fear-mongering. Holocaust education is good – and it works.
Last week, a major survey was released about Holocaust education in the United States. The findings were heartening: 80% of U.S. college students reported receiving at least some Holocaust education during high school, 78% of those students reported knowing a lot or a moderate amount about the Holocaust, and students exposed to Holocaust education were found to hold more pluralistic attitudes and were more open to differing viewpoints.
And you most likely didn’t hear anything about it.
Instead you heard about another survey released this week, one designed to get headlines. It did its job: News outlets worldwide reported that shocking numbers of Americans lack “knowledge” of the Holocaust.
The goal of the first survey — sponsored by Echoes & Reflections, a joint program of the ADL, Yad Vashem, and USC Shoah Foundation — was to examine the effectiveness of Holocaust education. (The directors of the partner organizations, myself included, were not involved in survey design or execution; I first saw the results when they were published publicly.)
The second survey, the one you likely saw discussed on social media and in the news, was sponsored by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
And its goal seems to have been to frighten people.
The Echoes & Reflections study was designed by experts at Lucent Collaborative and conducted by YouGov, a respected national polling firm. The report surveyed a very specific cohort: 1,500 students as U.S. four-year colleges, all of them aged 18 to 24. It was designed to learn about the state of Holocaust education today, and unlike the Claims Conference study, it did not muddy the results by including those who received their education across multiple decades.
The survey found that the Holocaust is taught broadly through American high schools, with eight out of 10 students reporting at least some Holocaust education. Unsurprisingly, it revealed that students who received Holocaust education have greater knowledge about it than those who did not, and those who received Holocaust education are more tolerant and more comfortable with people of a different race or sexual orientation than those who did not.
They’re also more willing to challenge incorrect or biased information, more willing to challenge intolerance, and more willing to stand up to negative stereotyping. And when presented with a bullying scenario, students with Holocaust education reported being more likely to offer help; they were 50% less likely to do nothing.
The Echoes and Reflections survey also learned that 55% of those who received Holocaust education either met a survivor or watched video testimony. When survivor testimony was part of Holocaust education, those students demonstrated higher critical thinking skills and a greater sense of social responsibility.
The survey shows that Holocaust education works, not just by increasing knowledge about the Holocaust but, perhaps more importantly, by imparting attitudinal and behavioral change.
How did the Claims Conference survey, conducted by Schoen Consulting, find such different results?
It didn’t, really. Both found that respondents believe Holocaust education is important and should be taught in schools. Both found that respondents believe learning the history of the Holocaust will keep something like it from happening again. Both argue that teachers need training and support to teach effectively about the Holocaust.
The Echoes and Reflections survey was concerned with understanding; the Claims Conference survey was concerned only with knowledge, and with a rigid definition at that.
The Claims Conference survey defined “knowledge” of the Holocaust as follows: a person has “definitely heard of the Holocaust” (78% said they had), can name at least one concentration camp, death camp, and ghetto (52% could name at least one), and knows that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust (37% did).
These are not unreasonable things to expect people to know. But it’s also a high bar to clear in order to say that someone has “knowledge” of the Holocaust.
When measuring knowledge alone, how many American can cite the number who died at Hiroshima? For how long the Vietnam War raged? The racial terror known as Jim Crow?
The implication of this survey is that people are somewhat antisemitic because they do not know facts about the Holocaust, when in fact they just may not know specific details about history.
Denying facts about the Holocaust is antisemitism. Not knowing facts about the Holocaust is not, although it is a sad indictment on our society. Let’s say Jews were surveyed, and it was found that a large number did not know the number of African slaves that were brought to this continent. Would that make Jews racist? (Don’t reach for Google.)
Let us assume that both surveys serve the same goal: to encourage the effective teaching of Holocaust history. I believe that the way to do that is to empower educators to do more, not to attack them. I believe that we should talk about solutions, not problems. I believe that we should talk about what works, not what doesn’t.
Holocaust education works, especially when it involves survivor testimony. Fear-mongering headlines, on the other hand, do not.
Stephen D. Smith Ph.D. is the Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation and UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.