by Dr. Rafael Medoff
At the annual meeting of the National Education Association in Washington recently, delegates rejected a resolution urging international action to stop Arab massacres of blacks in southern Sudan. Opponents argued that the issue is beyond the NEA’s agenda, and technically, they may have a point. But the question of teaching about genocide, past and present, does deserve a prominent place in American education.
Delegates to the 142nd convention of the NEA, the oldest and largest professional association of American educators, were presented with a wide variety of resolutions, including one directing the NEA to support international pressure on the Sudanese Arab government “stop its efforts to displace and starve native [non-Arab] populations,”which are now occurring principally in the southern region of Darfur.
Human rights groups have thoroughly documented the atrocities. The International Crisis Group reports “indiscriminate killings” by the government-backed Janjaweed Arab militia. Tens of thousands have been murdered in the past year alone. “Communities of African descent have been targeted while neighboring villages inhabited by people of Arab extraction have been spared.” Amnesty International has found “systematic human rights abuses, including killing, torture, looting and destroying of property,” with more than one million civilians driven from their homes in the Darfur region. Human Rights Watch has documented “the use of rape by both Janjaweed [Arab militia] and Sudanese soldiers against women from the three African ethnic groups targeted in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign in Darfur.”
Reports from the NEA convention indicate that the delegates rejected the resolution not because of a lack of sympathy for the victims in Sudan, but rather their belief that the issue ranged beyond the organization’s agenda.
On the other hand, supporters of the resolution could argue that taking a stand on Sudan is consistent with the NEA’s own mission statement, which states that the association will not only “promote the cause of quality public education” but also “advocate human, civil, and economic rights for all.”
Whatever the propriety of the NEA adopting that particular resolution, educators should recognize that the ongoing catastrophe in the Sudan is an appropriate framework for classroom discussions on how America responded to genocide in the past and what is happening today.
There is much for teachers and students to discuss. How and when did Americans learn about the Nazi genocide? How have recent advances in mass media technology (such as the advent of 24-hour news television) affected the flow of information about human rights abuses around the world? Why was the Roosevelt administration so reluctant to intervene on behalf of Hitler’s Jewish victims? How has the U.S. government responded to the atrocities in Sudan?
The importance of studying the past in order to inform the present was articulated by Kyle Haver, representative of New York City Chancellor of Education Joel Klein, when he spoke at a recent conference on “Teaching and Learning About America’s Response to the Holocaust,” sponsored by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. “The Wyman Institute’s efforts to inform teachers about America’s response to the Nazi genocide are important, because this subject must be taught and discussed in our classrooms,” he said. “Education is the key to making sure that the terrible mistakes of the past are not repeated.”
Another speaker at the conference, history teacher Judi Freeman of the prestigious Boston Latin School, described her innovative technique for educating her high schoolers about these issues. Freeman, who holds the school’s Seevak Chair in History, shows the students samples of the full-page newspaper ads sponsored in 1943-1944 by Ben Hecht and the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. The students are then required to design their own newspaper ads–promoting rescue from the Holocaust, and calling attention to contemporary atrocities.
Educators should take note of Kyle Haver’s message about the importance of learning the lessons of the past, and Judi Freeman’s innovative efforts to teach those lessons. After all, sidestepping a largely-symbolic resolution at the NEA convention is one thing–but sidestepping the issue of teaching about America’s response to genocide, past and present, would be a catastrophe.