A lesson from the Holocaust

Why would students as young as eighth-graders become deeply engaged in a unit about the Holocaust as a way of learning about history and about democracy?

Why, in studying the Holocaust, would students begin with literature ranging from Kurt Vonnegut's adult story about equality gone wild, ''Harrison Bergeron, '' to Dr. Seuss' tale of who is accepted and who is rejected, 'The Sneetches''?

One eighth-grade student in Brookline, Mass., home base of a unique curriculum called ''Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, '' offered an answer when he wrote, ''I don't think there will be another Holocaust if we keep on teaching about the Holocuast and the Constitution; all men are created equal.''

The Facing History materials have been adopted as either a one-quarter unit of a regular social studies course or as a separate semester course in school systems ranging from Providence, R.I., to Toledo, Ohio, to Toronto. Authors Margot Stern Strom and William Parsons have become directors of a teacher training center for their curriculum.

''In this curriculum,'' the authors explain, ''students are stimulated to reason and think about the implications for a society that abuses civil liberties and censors freedom to think. They grapple with the role of the victim , the victimizer, and the bystander.''

Unlike the small number of Holocaust curricula that preceded the five-year-old Facing History project, students do not begin with movies or journals of concentration camps.

Instead, they develop ''working definitions'' of sociological and political terms to be used in learning about how the mentality of totalitarianism grows: power, justice, obedience, scapegoating, and tolerance, among others.

Events in the unit, like the history itself, unfold chronologically, from Germany's devastation after World War I through the Weimar experiment in constitutional democracy through the gradual, measured steps of demagogues and the fate of a society torn apart.

Personal accounts and human dilemmas abound. In one film, ''Joseph Schultz,'' a reenactment is mixed with original still photographs taken by the Germans of a Nazi soldier who refuses to participate in a firing squad, and as a result, is ordered to line up and die with the other victims.

One hope the authors have for graduates of this curriculum is captured in the late Jacob Bronowski's words in ''The Ascent of Man,'' spoken during a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp: ''We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.''

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