Education of the traumatic events of 1915 has long been inherent to the Armenian experience. For most Armenians, their “sources” to these tragedies are first or second-hand accounts from relatives who escaped (and mournful remembrances about ones who never did). Their “textbooks” consist of handwritten letters. Their “teachers” are their family. In short, “genocide education” doesn’t come from the state; it’s just plain family history.
But today, as the survivors of horrors like the holocaust and the Armenian Genocide get older and fewer, American schools are beginning to see the value of formalizing the histories, from casual settings like a living room, to more formal ones like a classroom.
Interest in “genocide education,” as it has come to be called, appears to be growing. Currently, 11 states are required by law to teach about the Holocaust, and more are showing interest each year. As interest increases, however, debates over what constitutes genocide are becoming increasingly political. Only 15 states currently consider the Armenian Genocide as a primary example. Massachusetts is one of them.
Nebraska is the latest state to reconsider its education requirements, as fears of losing first hand stories and personal accounts of genocide survivors heighten. In March, State Senator Sara Howard from Omaha introduced Legislative Bill 640, which would “include study relative to the Holocaust and other genocides in provisions relating to multicultural education.” Howard told the Armenian Weekly she spearheaded the bill after discovering that not all students learn about the Holocaust, citing a national survey that found two-thirds of young adults couldn’t identify what Auschwitz was. The bill has received both support and pushback from the Nebraska community.
Bedross Der Matossian, associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska, is one of the supporters, writing that “the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the other instances of genocide mentioned in LB 640, as well as others that are not mentioned, need to be taught in our schools and need to be called by what they are.” Der Matossian noted the importance of this education, “so that efforts to purge the historical record under pressure from a foreign government can be met with facts and rejected.” Robert Nefsky, a Nebraskan lawyer and descendant of Armenian genocide survivors also noted the significance of educating students. He told the Lincoln Journal Star, “Denial of the Armenian genocide is in itself one of the best arguments for comprehensive and accurate education on what actually happened.” Nefsky added, “In 1939, at the time of his invasion of Poland, Hitler is reported to have said, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ We need the answer to be Nebraska’s high school students.”
Opposition from Turkish residents in Nebraska has been similarly vocal. Advisor to the University of Nebraska’s Turkish Student Association, Ayse Kilic, told the Lincoln Star Journal, “We feel that [it] has been constructed without sufficient research,” and added that the UN does not recognize the Armenian Genocide. She says she doesn’t want Nebraska’s K-12 students to be “inappropriately impacted against the Turkish culture.” In response to the objections, Howard’s bill offered an amendment that would allow certain instances of genocide, including Armenians, to be eliminated from curricula.
As amended, Howard told the Armenian Weekly that LB 640 will include the multicultural study of “the Holocaust and other acts of genocide.” It “does not specifically include or exclude any other acts of genocide that have occurred in history,” she said.
Armenian genocide recognition is not unheard of in Nebraska. Fifteen years ago, then Governor Mike Johanns issued a proclamation recognizing April 23 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Nebraskan Armenians and members of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) Education Committee also noted Nebraska’s support of the Armenian refugees during the genocide, when Nebraskan farmers “donated an impressive 413 carloads of corn with an additional contribution of $60,000 (approximately $777,000 in today’s dollars) for the purchase of additional corn at market price” for the Corn Campaign of 1921. They questioned why this support would stop now and suspected pressure from Turkish officials.