Going beyond the `whats' and `whens' of history to the `whys'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

``I COME out of class wasted sometimes,'' says Charles Lee, a Tufts University student from Portland, Maine. Walking along a concrete path between the monumental brick buildings that form the heart of this campus, he explains that while the class he just left is often unsettling, it's unquestionably valuable. ``We have to take it out of the context of a shock treatment,'' he asserts.

The ``it'' Mr. Lee refers to is the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The course, taught by Jan Darsa, looks hard at the process of individual and collective decisionmaking that encouraged the rise of Nazism and led to its ``final solution'' -- the attempted extermination of a race.

Ms. Darsa describes her goal as ``going beyond the `whats' and `whens' of history to the `whys.' We're looking at how neighbor turned against neighbor; how a legal system becomes such that it allows murder; how the entire ethical system of the West was turned on its head.'' Her materials are the words and thoughts of those who were there, conveyed in print, on videotape, and live, through guest speakers.

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That's the fresh context Lee indicated: a web of attitudes, beliefs, and impressions that render Nazi atrocities not simply shocking, but a manifestation of deeper ills in society and in human thinking generally. The course is intended to spur students to reassess their own thoughts about other races and peoples.

That introspective process, multiplied thousands of times, should help build a citizenry more sharply aware of the evils of prejudice. And the multiplying is, in fact, taking place.

Darsa's course at Tufts is part of a nationwide program called ``Facing History and Ourselves.'' Started 10 years ago in the Boston suburb of Brookline by high school teachers Margot Stern Strom and William Parsons, it has spawned some 300 courses in 46 states and Canada. They range from middle-school offerings to adult education classes. The program draws funding from more than 30 foundations and corporations, including the Carnegie, Ford, and New York Times Foundations.

``Facing History'' is headquartered on one floor of an ancient clapboard schoolhouse in Brookline. This is home base for the two founders, a full-time staff of 13, and 25 teacher trainers (including Ms. Darsa) who are frequently on the road helping to launch new courses. Teacher-training institutes are being planned for Massachusetts, Illinois, California, and Great Britain.

Ms. Strom explains that the idea for ``Facing History and Ourselves'' emerged after she and Mr. Parsons attended a conference on ways to teach youngsters about the Holocaust. Strom had grown up in the American South and had absorbed relatively little of the history of Nazism; Parsons had tried to incorporate the Holocaust into a history course he was then teaching, but with minimal success.

Both came away from the conference convinced that Hitler's campaign against the Jews was a ``watershed event'' that ought to be taught to American youth in detail, and with care to underscore the negative implications of racial prejudice and blind obedience to authority, as well as the positive qualities embodied by those who resisted Nazism.

From the start, says Strom, the program has faced objections. Why just the Holocaust in Europe? Why not include other genocides -- the Armenians at the hands of the Turks, the Cambodians, the American Indians?

It's more effective, she argues, to examine in depth the single best-documented example of attempted mass annihilation rather than to scatter one's fire. The wealth of written, filmed, and firsthand material on the Holocaust gives the``Facing History'' courses a powerful immediacy, in her view. In the Boston area, speakers have included former death camp inmates, a soldier who helped liberate the camps, and even someone recollecting his childhood experience as a member of the Nazi youth corps.

When you consider that such continuing ethical issues as euthanasia and eugenics were etched on society by the philosophy and methods of the Nazis, says Strom, the relevance of that history for our own times comes into focus. Questions about ``who the Holocaust belongs to'' -- whether it's only a Jewish concern -- are superficial, she asserts.

Jack Bournazian, a middle-school teacher in Chula Vista, Calif., emphasizes the timeliness of ``Facing History and Ourselves.'' He's in the midst of organizing a course for his school, lining up prospective speakers (including survivors of both the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide) and letting parents know about the planned class. His community faces an influx of new residents from Latin America and Asia; hence, material that emphasizes human rights and the need to respect diversity is crucial, he says.

What are Mr. Bournazian's thoughts about the appropriateness of the sometimes grisly subject matter for children aged 13 to 14? ``We're not going to launch so much into the gory part as into why it happened, into the obligations of citizens,'' he says. The point, as he sees it, is to ``start now'' with such teaching, ``before children become hardened in attitude.''

There's no question, says Jane O'Brien, a high school English teacher in small, rural Woodsville, N.H., that the ``Facing History'' subject matter ``is not easy to teach.'' You're deprived of the cushion of symbolism that fiction provides, she explains. Students, and teacher, come face to face with horrible things that actually happened. Even more difficult, youngsters confront outlooks in themselves or their families that they recognize as prejudiced. Ms. O'Brien recalls one student saying, ``I'm embarrassed to think of some of the things I've thought.''

That, in a nutshell, is what the program ought to do, says co-founder Strom: get people to ``think about thinking.'' With that, she adds, comes the realization that ``this history is not inevitable, that people had 20 years to make a difference . . . that the future depends on us.''

Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation Inc., 25 Kennard Road, Brookline, Mass. 02146.

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