Earlier this year, lawmakers in Annapolis contemplated passing a law mandating that all Maryland schools teach their students about the Holocaust and genocide. The goal was to make sure children growing up in the Free State would never forget about the 6 million Jewish men, women and children killed during World War II by the Nazis and that they would “better understand how to prevent these types of events in the future.” Despite its noble purpose, the bill never made it out of committee. And that was for the better. Here’s why.
Last week, Maryland State Department of Education officials announced plans to “enhance and expand” Holocaust education. What their review of existing social studies curriculum found was a need to teach about anti-Semitism as early as middle school and strengthen how this particular episode of history is taught. Maryland Schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon credited lawmakers for inspiring the revision as well as the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
This may well be the outcome that advocates had sought in the first place yet the fact it was handled internally by educators with greater expertise in matters of teaching and lesson planning makes it a far better result than if the original legislation had passed. It’s a point we made several months ago as politicians in other states passed similar mandates. As important as knowledge of this moment in history may be, particularly given the troubling rise in anti-Semitism of recent years as well as student surveys that show a shocking lack of awareness of the Holocaust, it’s a bad precedent to have pols, whether state legislators in Annapolis or members of Congress in Washington, D.C. or county commissioners or council members, determining the classroom agenda.
Putting it within the framework of the entire curriculum? Making sure it’s age appropriate? Sorting out context? Determining where it fits in the lesson plans? That’s not something legislatures do. And, as welcome as Holocaust education may be, there will always be another cause that politicians will find appealing because it could lead to a positive reaction from voters. One day, perhaps, it will be about hammering home the Second Amendment and the importance of firearm ownership. The next it could be about the state’s rights case for the Civil War or how the federal government doesn’t have the right to assess an income tax. The proposals may be worthy, or they may not be. But the temptation will be to pass something that captures the support of a particular constituency and thus improves chances of reelection.
Average Marylanders often find confusing the structure of education leadership. When does the buck stop with a school? When with a school system? When with the Maryland State Department of Education or the U.S. Department of Education? And why do Maryland school boards have so little say in how they are funded? This layered structure of management is, at least in part, due to a desire to to protect curriculum, to keep that massively important agenda in the hands of teachers, principals and other educators. The point is not to pursue a populist opinion of the day. It’s to rely on the judgment of those who are on the front lines of instruction, who are training in such matters, who work on them year after year — who have perspective.
Last week’s announcement is a terrific outcome. An important topic is now being handled in a responsible manner. It’s even fair to suggest lawmakers accomplished something positive in introducing a bill as a means to spotlight the issue. But if so, it was equally as important to let the bill quietly die after that point was made to MSDE. Had it passed, a troubling precedent would have been set. After all, one of the lessons of the Holocaust is how the Nazi ideology spread throughout Germany as a totalitarian government infiltrated schools, churches, the cinema, and anywhere else that propaganda could be used.
Better to keep matters of curriculum safely before school boards and educators with input from the general public than in the hands of politicians. Just to be on the safe side.