If the legacy of the Holocaust has given us anything, it is the hollow cry of Never Again. The last 76 years has shown us that if we want to act, if we want to stand up in the face of injustice, we need to do more than shout Never Again. But how do we live Never Again?
What does it mean to act on Never Again? And yet, Never Again has been the thesis and theory behind so many Holocaust education programs. We have failed. Since the Holocaust, we failed in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in the Sudan, and now we are failing again in China.
Never Again was meant to be a global stance, a rallying cry for nations to stand up against and call out injustice.
Today, it is a whispering echo, disengaged from how our students experience the world and how educators approach their pedagogy. Sure, students can recite these two words, but are we teaching and practicing their fulfilment? Given this reflection and a global legacy of political platitudes and photo opts, we need to accept that something is not working. Maybe it is our educational system, or maybe it is our approach. Maybe it is both.
Taking up the challenge of the latter, as experts in education, we now believe that we have been doing Holocaust education wrong all these years. Instead of teaching good character, we taught information in a factual, linear method. For instance, we taught people how Hitler rose to power – but not how the German people were supposed to grapple with the ethical dilemma they were thrust into.
When students asked us how the Holocaust could have happened, we explained it to them but failed to engage with them on a human level. Instead of teaching kindness and compassion, we told students about the Final Solution. When students asked us questions, we turned to blurry black and white photos, Hollywood movies, or textbooks, all disconnected from how education and media can be used as tools of socio-political indoctrination.
Instead of teaching how to take action in the face of injustice (and requiring them to do so), we have been teaching them about Nazi propaganda.
We have failed to demonstrate, connect, and engage. Education is performance art; it's experiential, it's kinetic, it's about getting in the sandbox, getting our hands dirty, tasting, touching, smelling. There is a saying that you cannot learn how to ride a bicycle from a textbook, and yet this text-book reliance has seemingly been our approach to Holocaust and human rights education. We failed to listen to Anne Frank who, having witnessed the devolution of humanity, said, "Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness."
All too often, we overemphasize wealth and power. Frank’s warning stands the test of time: wealth and power do not necessarily have a moral compass. Human greatness is achieved through deed, conviction, and principled action. Our fractured world is a testament to the necessity of building moral and ethical humans who differentiate between right and wrong.
As educators observing the rise of antisemitism, hate and intolerance, we are ready to deliver pedagogy that will create new educational underpinnings that may literally save humanity from itself. The Abraham Global Peace Initiative is a novel foundation that has developed unique systems of understanding humanity and human rights education.
While not new to educational discourse, we are integrating character education as an intellectual, participatory, and philosophical endeavour to engage in and with students, teachers, and global communities. We aim to hone critical thinking skills and develop what feels like a natural moral compass. We also aim to highlight a philosophical antecedent to character education that encompasses a broad range of perspectives dating from antiquity: the humanist tradition.
A humanist understanding of character as pertaining to character education may
be traced to Aristotle’s “moral virtues possessed by a good human being” and Cicero’s
insistence on the importance of the human community and aiming for what is right as
being worth more than any other value. The Greek word eudaimonia, which Plato and Aristotle typically used to identify the
goal of life, can best be translated as the ideal of the fully human life. This ideal includes
exercising our capacity for rational thought in both the use of judgment in practical affairs
and the theoretical contemplation of intellectual truths. In a similar vein, classical humanist understandings of character call for virtuous action and a need to participate morally in the world. English Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney described this virtue when speaking on the purpose of knowledge and education.
The purpose of education, he holds, is not only a “private end in [itself] . . . directed to the
highest end of the mistress knowledge”; but rather it is a broader pursuit which must
include “knowledge of a man’s [sic] self, in the ethic and politic consideration, with the
end of well doing and not of well knowing only.”
We assert that human rights education should enable students to involve themselves in the deepest problems of society, to acquire the knowledge, the skills, and the ethical vocabulary necessary for what philosopher and former Czech president Vaclav Havel (1998) called “the richest possible participation in public life.”
Yes, we must still teach the fundamentals of the Holocaust and other horrific encounters in human history in our effort to ensure they never happen again. Of course, we should teach about the rise of Nazism. Naturally, we should teach about the ghetto system and concentration and death camps. Of course! But we need to go deeper: critically inquire, interrogate, and intentionally interrupt our practice.
We need to do better. We are passionate about education and moral development and in doing so grapple with how moral development and character education intersect in a world where we need more upstanders over bystanders. The Abraham Global Peace Initiative believes that an environment conducive to character education is one that facilitates learners’ active and meaningful participation in righting global injustice. This is the way forward. This is how human rights education can be reimagined and fulfilled.
We know that rather than being told what to think, students need tools to learn how to think critically. To confront the impending dangers in our world today, strife and turmoil, the Abraham Global Peace Initiative will soon be deploying a global human rights curriculum that builds in a strong character component.
By Avi Abraham Benlolo, Dr. Karine Rashkovsky and Dr. Neil Orlowsky
NOTE: This article was originally published in the National Post on July 9, 2021