Why teach about genocide? “To improve our world.”

“Spyurk” by Jeff Bartell, unveiled during Attleboro Council on Human Rights’ commemoration of the Armenian Genocide on April 15, 2021

It was an honor to represent the Attleboro Public Schools at the Attleboro Council on Human Rights’ virtual forum in observance of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, but it was also a professional duty to discuss the important role our schools play in grappling with the challenging issue of teaching genocide as a topic in an educational setting, a subject Attleboro High School has included in its curriculum for as long as I have worked here, now a quarter century. 

I remember early in my career the unit on genocide we created as part of a new World History course, which included not only Armenia, but the Holocaust and Cambodia’s Killing Fields as well. I might not have been able to provide a particularly sophisticated explanation for why we thought genocide needed to be taught as part of our studies of the twentieth century, but those of us designing that course had some sense that we shared a moral obligation not to neglect these atrocities. 

Admittedly my recollection is that some colleagues were a bit wary about delving too deeply into such a gruesome subject. What if parents complain about exposing their children to disturbing material? Why risk it? Well, we persisted, and I don’t remember any complaints, but decades later, I hope I now have a more compelling answer to these questions.

And I should, as Superintendent of a district of 6,000 students, because we still teach the Armenian Genocide at Attleboro High School, most notably in AP World History and our elective on Holocaust Studies. Some teachers also choose to incorporate the topic into other courses they teach where they see an appropriate curricular connection. So why DO we teach this? The most fundamental answer is that it serves our mission “to develop and deliver relevant learning experiences that engage, challenge, and inspire all students to maximize their unique potential and improve our world.”

Inclusion of the Armenian Genocide in our curriculum supports our intention to make our learning experiences more relevant. The questions that have forever hounded high school teachers of all stripes are: “Why do we have to learn this? When am I ever going to need to know this?” One of the dirtiest secrets in education is that the answer for too much of what we have traditionally covered is regrettably, “never.” So as a district we are trying to shift our teaching away from those things that are only taught because they always have been, toward things that have real value for our students.

Genocide is a word that gets thrown around quite a bit these days as part of our public discourse. As adolescents try to make sense of our world, we have a responsibility to educate them in the context of the issues of our time so as to inform their participation in our shared dialogue about the problems we all face as a society. So learning about the 20th century’s first incidence of genocide is certainly a good start toward understanding this word better and assessing the appropriateness of its various applications in the arguments of our time.

But relevance can also be a matter of personal connection. We don’t all relate to the world in the exact same way. We each have an individual experience that should be acknowledged and respected. In this way, the study of history becomes a more inclusive endeavor. If US history is the record of our shared American experience, then its study should attempt, in part, to answer how we all came to inhabit this moment. 

My father’s forebears immigrated to America in the 1600s due to complex social changes in England, events that I learned about in my high school history class. Similarly, my mother’s Italian grandparents made the journey in the late 1800s, again due to forces I learned about in my high school history class. When I learned the story of our nation, I could see my very existence as a product of the geopolitical forces that brought people together who were separated by time, distance and culture to create the possibility of my family context. 

In the same way, today there are now hundreds of thousands of Americans with Armenian ancestry who are part of our national narrative as a result of events in a distant empire at the turn of the twentieth century. While Attleboro may not have a measurably significant Armenian community, every student deserves to see themselves in the way we teach US history. And rather than add a token reference as necessitated by who sits in front us, we should endeavor to tell the story thoroughly at all times.

But the weightiest aspect of our purpose at the Attleboro Public Schools is perhaps the final phrase of our mission statement: “to improve our world.” Public education is the investment a community makes in a better future for its youth. Some view this narrowly as the material gains an education on average bestows upon its recipients. But many would agree that schooling should prepare students to forge a better reality. I don’t know many people who do not hope or pray for as much for their children or grandchildren. And there is no shortage of evidence that our world today could use some improving.

So while it is relatively obvious that the world would be a better place without genocide, there is more value to teaching about it than the simple hope that such a thing will never happen again. We study the Armenian Genocide to not only understand its causes so that another genocide can be avoided, but also to reflect on what such an episode tells us about ourselves.

A thorough and robust inquiry into matters such as this are fraught with obstacles. It is all too easy to dismiss the implications of an episode like the Armenian Genocide. It happened in a faraway place just over a century ago. The historical forces that shaped the events are varied and complicated. Appreciating it in full requires sincere effort and true scholarship. Any attempt at such sharpens one’s appreciation for the complexities of our world.

But the bigger concern lies in the allure of oversimplifying the story. Attributing any genocide simply to the malignant nature of its perpetrators is a dangerous trap. The Armenian Genocide was an appalling tragedy, but if we are satisfied in concluding that the Ottomans were just bad and therefore something like this can never happen here because we aren’t like them, we miss the deeper concern. Even worse, this reductionist approach actually sows the seeds for future occurrences. If we believe that only evil people commit genocide, then we never have to worry about anything we “good” people ever do, even if somethings reminds us of the conditions that presaged historical instances of the phenomenon.

As students of history it should trouble us all that under the right circumstances, one group of people who once lived side by side in relative peace with another, can suddenly be compelled to attempt to systematically exterminate their neighbors on a massive scale. Appreciating this disturbing reality is the key to preventing it from happening again.

Finally, students learn history in every year of their education in our schools. But why? One of my predecessors shared Henry Ford’s famous assessment that “history is bunk.” He openly wished that the state would allow him to eliminate it as a subject. Lost in this warped view is the essential act of remembrance. For humankind, history reveals as much about the demonstrated depths of our depravity as it does the better angels of our nature.

Genocide seeks to eradicate not only a people, but their very existence from the historical and cultural record. Remembrance is a solemn defense against these aims. We honor the victims and take the necessary steps to ensure such suffering can never be experienced again by refusing to allow the story to die with the victims. In this way we take the regrettable elements of our history and harness them for future good.

David Sawyer

David Sawyer

David A. Sawyer is the Superintendent of schools in Attleboro, Massachusetts.
David Sawyer

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