Special for the Armenian Weekly
Genocide education remains a strong medium for showing students the importance of safeguarding and understanding not just their individual human rights but those that we share universally. According to research conducted by genocide scholar Samuel Totten, teachers strongly believe that genocide education provides opportunities for teaching about identity, moral theories, and character education.
As mentioned in Holocaust Education in Ontario Schools: An Antidote to Racism? (2000), Geoffrey Short’s findings show that genocide education will often not lead to anti-racist education unless teachers truly grasp its purpose and goals. Thus, in order to be delivered effectively, teachers require adequate professional development and continuous support. Without these conditions, it is easy for genocide education to become a survey course on genocides in history. Short goes on to cite denial of genocide as an important concern requiring attention in the classroom. “Clearly, if the Holocaust is to function as an effective antidote to racism it is essential to counteract Holocaust denial,” he says.
In The Emergence of Holocaust Education in American Schools (2008), Thomas Fallace discusses the “New York Times Debate” of the 1970’s in light of the emergence of Holocaust education curricula and of the New York City Board of Education’s recommendation that its study be made mandatory in all of its schools. Among the published letters, we see some denying the Holocaust and thus challenging Holocaust education. For instance, George Pape, president of the German-American Committee of Greater New York, claimed that there was no proof the Holocaust had really taken place; he also wrote that the curriculum would target innocent German Americans. Dr. M. T. Mehdi, the president of an Arab-American organization, claimed the curriculum was Zionist propaganda that was going to be promulgated at the city’s expense.
On July 13, 2005, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) put forward a motion that sparked the development of the Grade 11 “Genocide and Crimes against Humanity” course and, on Dec. 14, 2005, it decided to integrate the Armenian Genocide into the high school-level history curriculum. Once the inclusion of the Armenian Genocide was clear and after the writing of the course had been completed in 2007, the government of Turkey began its usual offensive.
On Aug. 27, 2008, Ottawa’s Embassy Magazine reported on the issue in an article titled, “Turkey Decries Toronto School Board Genocide Course.” The author, Michelle Collins, reported that the Turkish Embassy had begun lobbying against the course together with the Council of Turkish Canadians (CTC). Both emphasized, as George Pape had in the 1970’s, that no such thing as an Armenian Genocide had ever taken place and that the TDSB’s new course would expose students to racism and discrimination.
But a Jan. 24, 2008 statement by the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) had set the record straight on the matter. “The assertion that teaching the truth about the Armenian past will be demeaning to Turkish students or Turkish people in general denigrates the intelligence of Canadians of Turkish descent and strikes us as disingenuous,” the IAGS stated in a letter to the school board. “Education in a democracy is built on historical critique and critical evaluation. When the history of U.S. slavery, British colonialism, German genocide of Jews and Roma, Mussolini’s fascism, Stalin’s purges, or Mao’s human rights crimes is taught, the descendents of the perpetrators’ nationalities (Americans, British, Germans, Italians, Russians, or Chinese) are not demeaned or persecuted by anyone.”
Although German-American organizations have realized the importance and benefits of understanding and acknowledging the past as a means to create a peaceful society, the government of Turkey has yet to do so; in the meantime, it influences Turkish communities abroad into parroting its position.
The 2013-14 academic year marks the sixth time the TDSB has offered the “Genocide and Crimes against Humanity” course. Since its implementation, the school board has also declared April as Genocide Awareness Month. Over the years, the course has become popular among students, teachers, and administrators alike. Registration numbers alone show this, as they demonstrate a consistent increase in enrolment from year to year. Facing History and Ourselves, a Massachusetts-based organization involved in developing the course, provides ongoing professional development and teacher support, ensuring teachers are confident and effective, and are meeting the goals and purpose of genocide education.
Despite all this, in 2014, the Federation of Turkish Canadian Associations (FTCA)—an organization similar to the CTC—released a petition requesting the removal of the Armenian Genocide module. It also asked for the removal of a section on the “genocide of Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontian Greeks” from the school board’s 2013 Genocide Awareness Month statement. These efforts are not limited to Canada; the Massachusetts Board of Education faced similar opposition in 1999. In that case, a lawsuit was launched (ultimately unsuccessful) by the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA), claiming that the inclusion of the Armenian Genocide in the Massachusetts curriculum violated the rights of Turkish Americans. Similarly, just one month ago, the ATAA pursued genocide denial as the California State Assembly passed a resolution on teaching the Armenian Genocide.
A TDSB course proposal in 2008 in light of the denial campaign rings true: “Given the specific multi-cultural and multi-ethnic diversity within Toronto, we feel it is essential that students born within and outside Canada have the opportunity to explore in depth the causes and consequences of genocide and the lived realities of the aggressors, targets, bystanders, and resisters to these horrific acts of violence. A study of these experiences will help foster a sense of empathy for the targets of these violent acts and hopefully encourage students to understand the connections they have to their fellow human beings.” Here, the TDSB was providing a unique opportunity for promoting multiculturalism and diversity; conversely, the legal and educational structure of the government of Turkey—the very same government attempting to negatively influence the domestic affairs of another country—has suppressed knowledge of the Armenian Genocide.
Genocide denial often presents itself as one of the biggest challenges to the implementation of genocide education. Genocide scholar Gregory Stanton identifies denial as the last stage of the genocide process. It is a by-product of impunity and, if left unaddressed, can fuel future instances of mass violence. For this reason, genocide denial at the state level can be dangerous, and it is being practiced by the government of Turkey today. Since the establishment of its republic in 1923, successive governments have created an atmosphere of amnesia concerning Armenia and Armenians through the manipulation of geography, culture, and official history. These exercises in memory politics have then been pursued in all political, legal, and socio-cultural arenas and by a variety of government ministries from education to culture. The infamous Article 301 of the Turkish penal code stands as just one example that is often cited as problematic.
In the absence of justice, reconciliation, and social reform, denial fuels the cycle of genocide by leading the perpetrator state from a post-genocidal society to a pre-genocidal stage outlined under Stanton’s Eight Stages of Genocide (classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, denial). Denial allows genocide to transcend time and space, following victims and their offspring. Thus, genocide does not begin and end with physical destruction, nor do its effects remain constrained to borders. As mentioned above, people in California, Massachusetts, and Ontario have found themselves affected by campaigns being pursued far from the time and place of the physical violence.
By responding to and overcoming such challenges, societies demonstrate their dedication to creating safe spaces where new generations can learn and become the change. The TDSB expressed this well in its proposal to the Ontario Ministry of Education: “Democracy, justice, and the rule of law must be understood, claimed, and defended by each generation of citizens if we are to confront this demonstration of human evil. We believe that a full-credit course will engage students and allow them to study genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in a systematic and thoughtful way.” The “Genocide and Crimes against Humanity” course remains true to this rationale.
Moral philosopher Annette Baier states: “The reasons for recognizing obligations to future persons are closely connected with reasons for recognizing the rights of past persons.” If we cannot address the past, draw lessons, and start with respecting the rights of past persons, we cannot ensure the rights of persons in the future.
Raffi Sarkissian is the founder and chair of the Sara Corning Centre for Genocide Education (www.corningcentre.org). He is an educator, human rights advocate, public speaker, and poet. He holds a BA Hons. in history and a MEd from York University, and a BEd from Trent University. On Feb. 20, 2014, he presented a paper on “The Benefits and Challenges of Genocide Education” at Mount Royal University’s “Understanding Mass Atrocities” conference. This article is based on that paper.