Manitoba·Opinion

Holocaust survivors are right: Study history to counter the rise of fascism

An understanding of history and all of the humanities are critical for cultivating a democratic society that is able to defend itself from short-sighted, undemocratic, bigoted and nefarious forces, history educator Matt Henderson writes.

Democracy is not the norm in the world and it can quickly vanish in front of our eyes, Matt Henderson writes

If we don't learn about horrors such as the Nazi concentration camps like Dachau, above, and the systematic murder of millions of Jews in the Second World War, we lose a tool to fight fascism, Winnipeg history educator Matt Henderson writes. (Michael Dalder/Reuters)

In the past few weeks, an important discussion has surfaced in our community, prompted by survivors of the Holocaust.

This conversation asks us to contemplate the significance of our memory of the shared human experience.

Regine Frankel, who hid from Nazis as a young girl in France and survived, has asked us all to think about the need to engage learners in the rise of fascism, the relative ease of the spread of hate, and the propensity of evil-doers to dispel the importance of history and the perpetual argument based on the shared human experience.

It seems appalling that young people today might simply be unaware of the atrocities of the 20th century, which witnessed the most grievous and disastrous genocides, culminating in the Holocaust, the Holodomor and the Armenian genocide. Historian Timothy Snyder documents the millions of Europeans who were systematically slaughtered by Hitler and Stalin only a century ago in his book Blood Lands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

Winston Churchill provided advice to a student before the British prime minister departed from public life: "Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft."

While this advice might indeed by true, history, and all the humanities, are also critical for cultivating a democratic society that is able to defend itself from short-sighted, undemocratic, bigoted and nefarious forces. 

Education is a public good. Its central purpose, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum would argue, is the cultivation of humanity. An education system designed for more than just employment preparation is predicated on the notion that being educated "means learning how to be a human being capable of love and imagination," while gaining an immense amount of knowledge of the world and being able to translate this knowledge into critical thought and action. 

Similarly, Henry Giroux, a philosopher at McMaster University, posits that "At the centre of resistance, politics, and hope is the power of educating people to a more promising reality, one that unmasks the falsehood and fear upon which racism depends."  

Education is more than merely producing cosmopolitan citizens. It is a tool to defend ourselves against the spectre of fascism that rears its shadow in the likes of Trump, Erdogan, Duterte and Ader, to name just a few.

Members of a white supremacy group give the fascist salute during a gathering in Wisconsin in this 2011 photo. Citizens well-educated in the humanities are key to opposing a rise in fascism, Matt Henderson says. (Darren Hauck/Reuters)

But these conceptualizations offered by Nussbaum and Giroux are sometimes under attack. Throughout history, various regimes and policies have forced the hand of education systems throughout the world to create a system that is less about forming society, but more about serving it. 

Churchill might be an example of the historically literate citizen we desire. Despite all his character flaws and disastrous decisions at times, he was able to predict the advent of the Nazi Third Reich in an atmosphere of appeasement.

His deep commitment to not only the reading of history, but to its production (he wrote over 6 million words and is one of the most widely read historians on the planet), provided him with the skills, knowledge and values necessary to develop a criteria of thought and analysis. 

His predictions ultimately saved the world from tyranny and destruction.

And it is this level of critical thought — the Critical Thinking Consortium calls it the "ongoing, mindful assessment of ideas and actions in light of conscious consideration of relevant criteria" — that we wish to foster in our learners.

Democracy is not the norm in the world and it can quickly vanish in front of our eyes. 

To avoid this peril, our learners to need to engage with history educators who possess three critical characteristics.

First, outstanding history educators must want to develop deep and authentic relationships with their learners.

Second, they must have a rich understanding of the content they teach.

And last, they need to, as we say in our field, "bring it" every day. They need to come each day excited about the studying and the doing of history.

And everyone is a history teacher.

It is through intentional design, passion and knowledge that our learners need to be engaged in the atrocities of the past so they can examine the human experience in a critical way.

If we are to resist the populist and autocratic shadow that is expanding throughout the world, then we need a citizenry that is grounded in critical and historical thought.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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About the Author

Matt Henderson

Matt Henderson, who has a master's degree in education, is the assistant superintendent, curriculum and programs, of the Seven Oaks School Division, Curriculum and Programs. He is the former principal of the Maples Met School in Winnipeg and a winner of the Governor General's History Award for Excellence in Teaching. He ran for the New Democratic Party in the last federal election.

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