It has come up regarding teaching evolution in life science classes. It seems to come up with climate change, not just in education but in state governments. In 2015, then-Florida Governor Rick Scott struck the phrase “climate change” from all state government communications. (Apparently, since getting elected to the Senate, he has changed his tune, although too little and assuredly too late.) As scientists have been warning about for decades, not talking about the issue has obviously not made the problem go away. Since 2015, Florida has continued to experience the effects of compromised weather systems, including the horrors of Hurricane Michael and the fact that Miami Beach is underwater whenever it rains. It seems that in our 21st century educational landscape and beyond, all things can be perceived as controversy.
Now, a Florida principal has been reassigned because he would not confirm in communications whether or not the Holocaust was a historical fact.
To add deep insult to horriffic injury, this principal was an administrator in Boca Raton, FL. (Full disclosure, at the date of his reassignment, my own resignation from the School District of Palm Beach County had just been approved.) Boca Raton is the second largest city in Palm Beach county, an area that has been referred to as “more Jewish than New York City.”
I am not Jewish, nor is anyone in my immediate family. I know very little about the staff or current student body of Spanish River High School. I do know, however, that my husband graduated from Spanish River, and that from observational standpoint, a large number of his friends growing up were Jewish. His parents still live in the same house they did when he attended high school, and there is an Orthodox synagogue down the street from them. An all-boys Jewish high school is currently being constructed nearby.
Aside from simply noticing a large Jewish population in Boca Raton and drawing information from fourteen-year-old newspaper claims, the cited demographics back up the observation. A study conducted in the fall of 2018 by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute of Brandeis University on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Southern Palm Beach County found that there were 134,200 Jewish adults & children living in the neighboring communities of Delray Beach, Highland Beach, and Boca Raton. (The combined population of these three cities & their unincorporated areas totals under 400,000, so you can draw your own conclusions.) The study also indicated that over 50% of these Jewish residents do not belong specifically to a congregation or temple. The study further showed that the Jewish population of southern Palm Beach County (immediately to the south of where I am currently residing) is growing and becoming younger. More Jewish families are having & raising Jewish children. And while the area boasts several private, religious schools, many Jewish children in Delray Beach & Boca Raton attend public schools.
For the uninitiated, Holocaust deniers not only show brazen, dangerous levels of anti-Semitism, but also unabated racism & bigotry toward many other groups. Denial of the Holocaust is generally a marker of a person you might not like to be in the presence of. So much so that a metal band was dropped from their record label for even thanking a Holocaust denier writer. Yes — while no one can seem to get Chris Brown off of the radio for a decade after gossip media repeatedly showed what he had done to his partner, one particular record label was diligent enough to check the liner notes of an album when asked about it, and proceeded to deplatform an artist over association with these views. Outstanding on their part, and an example to many more.
Back to Florida principals.
To have a school principal who would be willing to accept the Holocaust as a “controversial” historical fact would seem more believable in the town I grew up in — Deltona, FL, in Volusia county. I remember a single synagogue in the entire county I grew up in, and to this date, there is but a single Jewish Federation of both Volusia & Flagler Counties. (As of 2017, Flagler county had only a total population of 110,510.) Although white students are still the very slight majority in Volusia, there have long been significant populations of Black & Latino (notably Puerto Rican) residents in my hometown. There were also documented incidents involving the KKK in Deltona, even in the late 90s, and Confederate flags waving from many of the trucks in my high school parking lot. There was a rumor that went around in high school that Steven Spielberg offered free copies of the film Schindler’s List to every school district in the US during the 90s. Reportedly, only Volusia County and two other districts in the United States passed on the offer. I don’t mean to spread counterfactual information; I am saying that particular rumor seemed wholly believable for teens in Volusia County.
However, growing up in Deltona, I remember reading Eli Weisel’s Night and The Diary of Anne Frank, both in middle school. The facts of the Holocaust were made clear to us, as was the idea that we were never to allow such atrocities to ever happen again.
My question regarding schools is: where does “teaching the controversy” end? Do we teach slavery and the genocide of Indigenous populations all over the Americas as a controversy? Parents refuse to vaccinate their children not because they are immunocompromised, but based on a long-debunked belief systems that informs them that the efficacy of vaccines is controversial. There are too many institutions that will tell students & individuals that whatever they can defend, so long as they have Jenny McCarthy-level Googling skills, can be true.
What we do not teach as a debatable fact is test scores. We don’t teach anyone in our communities to question the fact that students are being tested into oblivion, a practice that has been correlated time and time again to socioeconomic levels of neighborhoods rather than intellectual capacity of students. On the whole, we fail at teaching students that they are more than simply a test score or simply a batch of data. We fail at indicating to kids that they can have a fulfilling life if they don’t perform well in school. Having performed extremely well in school myself, I can tell you that those accomplishments are no guarantee of financial security or personal happiness.
School principals are not permitted to openly question the wisdom of standardized testing, but they openly pander to constituents who might not believe the Holocaust happened?
Amazingly enough, in sleepy Deltona, I did have particularly phenomenal history teachers. I was taught to question Columbus Day and the roots of colonialism — not just in one or two books, but over three separate years, in middle and in high school. We were taught to research, how to look for accurate sources, how to think for ourselves but check the receipts & the citations along the way. At least, that was what I got out of my public educational experience in Volusia county.
I have taught middle school band for 12 years, but I have spent more time than imagined teaching media literacy to my students. We did a concert unit about the Harlem Renaissance this past spring, and while I cannot guarantee that I got everything I wanted across to my students, I do feel as thought I started to get them thinking. We began the unit by discussing why Africa’s borders look the way they do. I pulled up a current map of the African continent on my SMARTboard. I then pulled up colonial maps, trying to show at least a little bit how nation states form.
Somehow, in at least one of my classes, the lesson degraded into, “But Miss, the Illuminati!” This is an often-had discussion in my classroom, starting in earnest with a general music class from 2013. It is important to talk teenagers down from, “But Miss, I saw it on YouTube!”
When those words come up and we’re having that discussion, I have never been able to bring myself to get back on track. I stop being a music teacher at that point and start being a media literacy teacher. They should be thinking for themselves of course and developing genuine inquiry, but in the media landscape that we’re in, full of flat-earthers with podcast microphones, they need guidance. So we talk about how we discern what’s real from what’s false.
I had one very young student in the fall of 2017 who asked me, “What if I were a Nazi?” I forget the context in which it came up, but the question stopped me in my tracks. I told the student, straight up, “Then you’d be responsible for genocide, for the death of 10 million people, largely Jewish people.”
The student asked me, “But what if I were a nice Nazi?”
“You’d still be responsible for all of those deaths.”
“But I have Jewish friends!”
The student was shocked. And hopefully something got through. And maybe they don’t get to lessons on the Holocaust in elementary school anymore because there is so much focus on testing, on teaching very specified standards & benchmarks. Were I an educational conspiracy theorist, I might make the case that students are not taught media literacy & research skills on purpose.
Raises in test scores are lauded, enshrined on plaques, bandied about on websites, and reported in the local media. A raise in test scores for a principal can make their career. That is not questioned in our educational system.
But an email exchange treating the Holocaust like a controversy can go on for months unnoticed.
I could accept the fact that the reassigned Spanish River High School principal is not himself a Holocaust denier. But I cannot accept that any school leader, teacher, or anyone directly involved in the education of students would not commit to stating that the Holocaust was historical fact just because a student, or worse, a parent, might not believe it is.
As educators, we do our best in the classroom to disseminate information to students. We are, however, not in control of the belief systems of our students. Merely looking at the number of students who’ve passed through my classroom, some for three full years, I appreciate their contributions but I cannot condone everything they say or do. (Don’t even get me started on the conversations I hear that spill over from online gamer sessions into trumpet sectionals.)
But I have control over what happens in my classroom. The buck as well as the hateful & ahistorical utterances stop with me. I zap it out whenever I hear it. As Dr. Cliff Madsen would say, “You control the environment that in turn controls you.” Even if we take long side quests into discussing history & racism, we talk about it. We don’t just move on. And we watch The Sound of Music as more than just a day-after-concert lesson plan.
My fear is that if this information came to light in a heavily Jewish area like Boca Raton, we don’t know what is happening in email exchanges between parents or students and administrators or teachers all over the country. What sort of history & media literacy is being taught in rural schools, where families do not cover up their swastika tattoos in the car line?
What we must teach, instead of controversy just for the what-about-it’s sake, is history as well as we can define it. We should speak directly to people who experienced it first hand. We should continue to study it, continue to encourage scholarship, and more than all of this, we should not cannot genocide.
What is also not debatable is the humanity of each person. We cannot teach that other people are lesser than and therefore deserve inhumane treatment. We cannot allow there to be debate over the suffering of others. We must draw a line. We cannot treat the fact that every human has basic rights as a controversial fact.
This is the task at hand for all of us as we start the school year again.
If you would like to donate to the Holocaust Memorial of Miami Beach, and ensure that children in South Florida are educated on the Holocaust, you can visit their website and donate here.
*The conclusion of this piece was edited on August 6th, 2019.