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Holocaust Educator: Genocide Discussion Should Go Beyond History Classes

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Children learn about the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum through archival footage and photos displayed on a projection screen.

The Holocaust is usually taught in history or social studies classes, but according to the director of Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Holocaust and Human Rights Education the lessons learned from the mass genocide can be implemented in science, math and even physical education classes. 

Linda Medvin was not surprised when she heard the controversy surrounding William Latson, a principal at Spanish River High School in Palm Beach County who denied the existence of the Holocaust. "We try to educate teachers and administrators but in many cases there were gaps in their eductation growing up because the Holocaust was not necessarily at the forefront of what they were learning," she said on Sundial.

The Latson controversy raised questions among educators and South Florida residents regarding how the Holocaust is taught in schools. In 1994, Florida became the first state to make the teaching of the Holocaust mandatory in schools. The Holocaust Education Bill (SB 660) included a task force to make sure curriculum was implemented.

Medvin works closely with Florida teachers on how to teach and develop curriculum around the subject. She joined Sundial to talk about where she sees blindspots in the current education system.

This has been edited lightly for clarity. 

MEDVIN: The Holocaust didn't start with the camps and the deaths. It started with the wars. It started with the elections. It started with (the Nazis) and the dehumanization. It started with the Nuremberg Laws (anti-Semitic and racist laws in Nazi Germany). So all of these things are a progression and we need to understand that. It's the lessons of the Holocaust that will take us forward.

WLRN: When you talk about teachers and how they approach this topic you said there are two types of teachers: One is Holocaust passionate and the other is Holocaust phobic. Explain the difference.

Many teachers are afraid of the subject because they don't know enough about it to teach it effectively. They don't have the historical background. They may think the perception is only a Jewish teacher should be teaching the Holocaust, but it's a history course. Sometimes they're just afraid. They're afraid of the ramifications of what happens if they say something wrong in their classroom. They're afraid of using a book.

We've had incidents where kids hear something that they may or may not agree with or a parent may or may not agree with because it's not what they learned about the Holocaust. The kickback in the classroom to these teachers makes them kind of apprehensive.

And then we have Holocaust passionate teachers who get so involved that it becomes disproportionate to what they're teaching about in other subjects. I had a teacher at one time who in her list of spelling words was using Hitler — and I don't know that that's an appropriate spelling word for a first-grade classroom.

The Holocaust is something that was taught usually during history class, but what you're saying is that there is so much more to the story and you have to look beyond just that.

We're limited in Florida and in many other states. We need to teach to the standards of what the state legislature and the commissioner of education have for our state.

The Holocaust is not specifically mentioned in any subject area because we have pushed to make it integrated and interdisciplinary and cross curricula. There's no reason that an economics teacher can't teach about the Holocaust when they talk about the inflation and the economic conditions in Germany. There's no reason why a science teacher can't use the genetics of who was actually determined to be Jewish or about some of the other victims in science classes. I wrote at one time a curriculum for (physical education) of designing an exercise program in a confined space in conjunction with Anne Frank. There's no limit to it and it could go anywhere and any teacher. There's lots of things out there.

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