Holocaust education in schools is a good start—and shows why facts matter

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Appeared in the Hub, November 8, 2023
Holocaust education in schools is a good start—and shows why facts matter

Holocaust education will soon be mandatory for all high school students in British Columbia and Ontario. In B.C., Premier David Eby recently announced that Holocaust education will be added to the Grade 10 social studies curriculum by the 2025/26 schoolyear. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford is expanding Holocaust education in Grade 10, following a similar mandate last year.

As long as the provincial government is going to establish the curriculum rather than simply outlining learning outcomes, the governments in B.C. and Ontario should be commended for this. But it raises the question as to why this wasn’t already the case—and what other historical knowledge are students missing?

These initiatives come not a moment too soon. A survey conducted several years ago by the Azrieli Foundation, a Canadian-Israeli philanthropic group, found a stunning lack of knowledge about the Holocaust amongst Canadian youth. More than one-in-five young people weren’t sure what happened during the Holocaust. More than two-thirds didn’t know that six million Jews were killed.

Recent events make it clear that antisemitism remains a problem in Canada. Huge rallies across Canada actively praise the slaughter of 1,400 Jews in Israel by Hamas, a designated terrorist organization.

Irwin Cotler, former federal justice minister and Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism, says that today, Canada is experiencing the most significant rise in antisemitism since organizations began tracking it in the 1970s, and that these views are becoming less fringe and more mainstream.

Clearly, ensuring that all high school graduates have at least a basic familiarity with the horrors of the Holocaust is a good starting point.

But why was this topic not already in the B.C. curriculum? Any history curriculum worth its salt would obviously contain detailed information about one of the worst genocides in human history. Unfortunately, B.C.’s curriculum doesn’t place much emphasis on factual knowledge.

In a major overhaul that began under the previous government and has continued today, B.C. adopted a new curriculum emphasizing generic skills rather than specific content knowledge. As one promotional brochure from the government put it, the redesigned curriculum places “more emphasis on the deeper understanding of concepts and the application of processes than on the memorization of isolated facts and information.”

This statement promotes a false dichotomy. Memorizing facts does not hinder deeper understanding—it makes deeper understanding possible. You cannot think critically about something you know nothing about. Only when you possess background knowledge about a topic can you think critically about it.

For example, someone who knows nothing about the Holocaust won’t have anything useful to contribute if they are asked whether it makes sense to criminalize Holocaust denial, nor will they have an informed opinion about the proposed deportation of suspected Nazi war criminals. Content knowledge about the topic is essential for critical thinking to take place.

Interestingly, B.C. currently has a Grade 12 elective called “Genocide Studies.” At first glance, it might sound simpler to just make this course mandatory for all students and assume that students will learn about the Holocaust that way. However, the curriculum guide for that course is vague. While the guide says that students should learn what genocide is and provides some suggested topics, including the Holocaust, nowhere does it mandate any specific content.

Simply put, Grade 12 students who take Genocide Studies might never learn about the Holocaust. Some teachers would no doubt cover this topic, but others may not.

As long as provinces are in the business of determining curricula rather than simply mandating learning outcomes, the only way to ensure that the Holocaust is adequately taught in B.C. schools is to make it a part of the curriculum. But this alone is not enough. One cannot fully understand the Holocaust without understanding the events that led to it. Adolf Hitler did not arise out of a vacuum but was a product of his time. The First World War, the Treaty of Versailles, and the events that led to the Second World War are just some of the topics students must learn about.

In short, while B.C. and Ontario should move ahead with their plans to make Holocaust education mandatory, they should not stop there. Students in all grades deserve a knowledge-rich curriculum. Providing students with content knowledge is the key to breaking the cycle of ignorance.

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