OPINION: U.S. Holocaust education needs to be better, and so do 5C students

Six people look out a trapezoid-shaped window.
(Courtesy: Matthew Delaney via Wikimedia Commons)

Just days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, the school board of McMinn County, Tennessee unanimously voted to remove the graphic novel “Maus” from its curriculum. Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking book is best known for its unique ability to introduce young people to the horrors of the Holocaust by using the familiar medium of graphic novel illustrations. The banning of “Maus”, along with the decision’s darkly ironic timing, resulted in a national outcry of opposition and the reignition of a conversation about the U.S. education system’s refusal to confront the tragic realities of the Holocaust. 

The censorship of “Maus” is a symptom of this much wider issue. Any Jew who has had to endure a conversation about Jewish issues with a well-meaning but ignorant non-Jew can attest to the sad state of Holocaust education in this country, and the data reflect that reality. 

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany conducted a survey of millennials and Generation Z in the United States in 2020, assessing their knowledge of facts about the Holocaust. The results are alarming. 63 percent of respondents didn’t know that six million Jews were killed, and 36 percent thought that the number was two million or less. 48 percent couldn’t name a single one of the over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos. Half claim to have seen Holocaust denial or misinformation on social media. Most disturbingly, 11 percent of U.S. millennials and Gen Z believe that Jews caused the Holocaust, with the number as high as 19 percent in states such as New York. 

The Claims Conference’s interaction map illuminates a significant disparity in knowledge from state to state. The only thing that seems to be consistent across U.S. Holocaust education curricula is their inadequacy. It is important to note that ignorance of Jewish issues is not confined to states like Tennessee; living in the progressive California bubble does not make one immune to antisemitism by any means.

The consequences of poor Holocaust education are felt by Jewish people across the country, including students at the 5Cs. The Scripps Core I curriculum for the past three years has, coincidentally, included Spiegelman’s “Maus.” Many in-class discussions of the book last semester were a staggering display of how students have been failed by their prior Holocaust education. Students expressed their confusion with the book’s presentation of the racialized component of Holocaust-era antisemitism, uncritically spouted inaccurate history, and even admitted to the fact they had yet to learn about the Holocaust in an academic environment. Overall, it was clear that many non-Jewish students were fundamentally unequipped to discuss antisemitism and the Holocaust. And it is Jewish students who are often tasked with the responsibility of correcting classmates’ misconceptions on top of trying to learn and work through their own personal relationship to the tragedy.

In just the last month, American Jews have experienced countless instances of antisemitism, including (but not limited to) the hostage situation at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, Robert F. Kennedy’s harmful statement comparing vaccine mandates to the Holocaust, and a Tennesse couple being denied the ability to adopt simply for being Jewish. As antisemitism rises and politicians attempt to redefine the tragedies of the Holocaust to fit their harmful agendas, it is clear that Holocaust education has never been more important. The U.S. education system must do better; all children deserve to — and must — learn the history of the Holocaust and the crucial lessons that can be taken from it. 

As we fight to ensure students across the United States have access to comprehensive and accurate Holocaust education, it is crucial for 5C students to take action to remedy the gaps in their own knowledge. For you, maybe that means visiting the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles, or reading one of many accounts written by Holocaust survivors. Maybe it means engaging with resources about modern-day antisemitism (“The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” by April Rosenblum or “Understanding Antisemitism” by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice). Or, perhaps, take a moment to donate a copy of “Maus” to the Tennessee Public Library system. Whatever you can do to educate yourself about the Holocaust and ensure future generations are able to do the same, we implore you to do so. Your Jewish community members depend on it. 

Nicole Smith SC ’25 is from Boulder, Colorado. They enjoy hiking, poetry, and making oddly specific Spotify playlists.

Gwen Tucker SC ’25 is from Evanston, Illinois. She is passionate about community organizing, Jewish identity, and showing everyone pictures of her foster dogs. 

Facebook Comments