Teaching our students about integrity, courage, and human rights

Disclaimer: This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of all Teachers' Christian Fellowship members.

Teaching our students about integrity, courage, and human rights

Erin Hick, who teaches at Shellharbour Christian School, prepared this paper from her involvement in the Gandel Holocaust Education Program for Australian Educators with its focus on educational philosophies relating to how to approach teaching about the holocaust in age-appropriate and safe ways. 

“… Yes, I have faith. I have faith in the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. I even have faith in His creation. Without faith no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference. Indifference, the most insidious danger of all. Isn't this the meaning of Alfred Nobel's legacy? Wasn't his fear of war a shield against war?

There is so much to be done, and there is much that can be done. I have learned it in my life, one person – a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, a Martin Luther King -- one person of integrity, of courage, can make a difference, a difference of life and death.” (Wiesel, 1986).

Eliezer Wiesel wrote ‘Night’, which is based on his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. It ranks amongst the most personally influential books I’ve ever read. Also, one of the most harrowing. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, for a lifetime of actions which delivered a message "of peace, atonement, and human dignity" to humanity.

None of us have encountered true atrocities like the Shoah, but as citizens of this earth chosen by God to influence and inspire the next generations, it is very much our responsibility to teach our students about integrity, courage, human dignity and human rights. Through our actions, we also show them the value of faith in action.

A Christian school is characterised by its need for academic excellence alongside a synthesis of culture and faith in a Christ-based vision of the world. An effective Christian school will feature “a rigorous religious education program, a faith and values infused academic curriculum and opportunities for faith-formation” (Ozar and Weitzel O’Neill, 2012, cited in Cook, 2015, 50).

Schools are not impervious to the contemporary context of Australian society. While schools may strive to be learning communities that are distinctively different, they are subject to global trends of individualism, pluralism and secularism. In providing educational opportunities in the classroom, teachers guide towards significant, profound learning and realising the impact of what is studied beyond classroom walls.

I have a particular interest in holocaust studies. It is something that has piqued my interest since I was eight years old and I first read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.” I have found that grappling with this intensely challenging subject matter is something that has created significant overlap in most of my teaching areas. Furthermore, as a Christian, I have really found that my image of God and understanding of human behaviour and free will has been developed by reading about it, studying it and critically questioning.

Signer (2004) reflects that acknowledging a sense of regret and repentance over their ancestors’ past actions could lead Christians to be more sensitive in their interactions with Jews in the future. I have definitely found this to be my experience, but this is certainly an objective of education within Christian schools too, so that future generations do not repeat the mistakes of the past or continue with policies or attitudes that inflict such persecution on others. The impact is seen still in Israel and in the Jewish community of Australia, who see education as their key to survival (Levi, 2004).

My involvement in the Gandel Holocaust Education Program for Australian Educators is certainly testament to that, and part of the program a significant focus was on educational philosophies relating to how to approach teaching of the holocaust in age-appropriate and safe ways.

As an event that still sharply shapes modern consciousness, the existence of the Shoah presents some brutal truths to Christians regarding how they have acted and how they ought to act towards others. Christians must realise studying the Shoah is not studying purely what happened to the Jews. Many perpetrators used their Christian heritage and faith to justify persecution of the Jews.

“The Shoah must affect our conscience, our usual way of doing things, our priorities regarding that for which we will give our life… While nothing on the scale of what happened in Europe in the 1930s is happening now, nonetheless our God beckons us to a new commitment to reflect humbly in our attitudes towards the Jewish people… Our sense of responsibility, perhaps encouraged and emboldened by our study of the rescuers, may move us Christians to make sure that not only does something like the Shoah never happen to the Jewish people, but that something like the Shoah never happens to any people.” (McGarry, 2000, 3-4).

Clearly then the Shoah is something that needs to be discussed and known about in Christian communities, and naturally an educational setting such as a school is not exempt but rather an ideal locality. For the benefit of future humanity and partly to assuage guilt, the process of memory in teaching and studying the Shoah is an important feature of Christian schools. Bartrop (1994) indicates the impact upon Australia, with relatively recent war crime trials and increasing access to holocaust films, as it “has become an inescapable part of popular culture and awareness about the twentieth century experience.” (243).

Levi (2004) intimates that typical Australians have a limited exposure to accurate representations of Jews, who are often depicted as weak or cruel in classic texts such as The Merchant of Venice. Jewish perspectives on the Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter are ignored except in their perceived ignorance to the coming of the Messiah. Misconceptions may even exist regarding the reasons behind the 1930s persecution because of depictions in video games or films (Burtonwood, 2000). It is hoped that through more sensitive treatment that students become more enlightened to the misrepresentations of the past.

Lindsay (2004) identifies that “historically, and theologically, there is a continual need to bring the lessons of the Shoah into normative frameworks.” (70). The existence of survivor accounts, Holocaust literature, films and of course Holocaust museums and heritage sites serve to remind the world of what happened. Invariably their construction and motivations differ. Most offer a historical perspective by tending to focus on the empirical facts of the holocaust and exist to educate current and future generations and to honour those whose lives were altered or taken.

Holocaust memory being simply remembering the events of the Shoah is inadequate as a concept in education.

Students should be being prepared through educational programs to engage with the values and attitudes such content introduces, particularly how to respond to racism. Teachers should endeavour to ensure such ideologies are explicitly taught in their classrooms, from K-12. Although in Israel the Shoah is taught from kindergarten, for Australian psyches, mention of the Holocaust specifically should be relegated to older – preferably secondary students. That being acknowledged, values regarding racism and treatment of others are appropriate and imperative for all ages to encounter in educational practice. It’s also relevant to ensure that as we teach our students to develop faith and understanding of God as they age, so it can be applied as they encounter ideas that may challenge them and their faith.

Using the subject of English as an example, O’Sullivan (2006) theorises that “children's literature can illuminate and elucidate God and theological concepts in developmentally appropriate ways.” (43). We know from Helen and Dan earlier in SAC talks that literature has a powerful impact on young minds. While young children are more likely to depict God in human forms and see Him in a concrete form, as they age, their development becomes more abstract and nuanced. “Literature also asks the hard questions and allows children to see themselves as they really are, thereby making the need for God more obvious” (O’Sullivan, 2006, 48).

In adolescence, more abstract ideas are able to be comprehended, and young adult or adult literature is set for study and reading.

Children have a variety of needs dependent on their own context, and encounter a range of emotions and experiences within their lives. These naturally influence their own development, including spiritual and religious development. Conversations with children and adolescents that may broach their image of God will become more complex as they develop their own worldview and belief system. It is important that the teacher in the classroom or the adult conversing with a child aims to parallel the level of language used by the child to reach them.

This serves to encourage a positive relationship and foster an equality of understanding. Naturally the complexity of language and ideas is greater for an adolescent than a child, but it is possible the adolescent retains a childish level of understanding of God, or has had limited exposure through their own family or cultural background. It’s important to remember none of our students are on an even playing field when it comes to their knowledge and experience of God, but we have equal time to invest in them.

The values of integrity and compassion, acceptance, tolerance, respect and justice are all ideals for students to embrace and display in their lives. Each of these should be demonstrated in an empathetic discussion or teaching activity that includes challenging content, regardless of the teaching subject. Students in Christian schools have a privileged position in being able to discuss ideas in a way that could not be taught in a secular scenario.

When it comes to discussing confronting ideas, the role in holocaust education is to deal with complex topics and to ensure that students learn through the ideology of ‘safely in and safely out.’ Controlling the knowledge can then become a problem – you don’t want students to learn too much too early. Since the subject matter of holocaust material can be highly confronting to students, literature recommends the micro-history approach with an emphasis on specific individuals such as Anne Frank (Brown and Davies, 1998 in Burtonwood, 2000) or using autobiographical material and children’s diaries (Goldberg, 1996 in Burtonwood, 2000).

This material allows for more than an intellectual response to the material and to move students so that they “can appreciate common human vulnerabilities and the sense of outrage at the misery and degradation of the Holocaust to be found in survivor accounts.” (Burtonwood, 2000, 74). If starting with narrative in primary school, the story of an individual should be balanced. A story of a survivor which touches upon big issues would be fine, but don’t dwell on these. You may wish to start with some knowledge, but reduce the levels of complexity. As students mature the complexity can increase, but focusing on personal stories are preferable to an overarching statistical summary or traumatic recount. Big issues can be introduced, and later on developed. Don’t introduce ethical dilemmas or provide questions without answers. Even with senior high school, some topics don’t have educational benefit. Be selective and pre-emptive, seeking to avoid trauma. Education should also strive to address passive bystander responses, and may choose to consider the acts of rescuers and the Righteous Among the Nations.

At my school in the subject of Christian studies, we think it is important for them to question the importance of faith in times of difficulty, and to consider how to respond to humanity. I developed a program for the year 11 classes which revolved around the question where was God in the holocaust?

Students focus on five central ideas which each had an overall question to pose and ponder. The first asked “Why does God allow suffering to happen?” Tricky, but important questions.

We look at the suffering but also the determination of Jewish people to cling to their faith and religious tradition during imprisonment in camps and their questioning the presence of God was a pivotal area for consideration. Students looked at forms of spiritual resistance and suffering within selected excerpts from Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and the poetry of Dan Pagis both of which they have studied previously in English. Excerpts from Elie Wiesel’s “Night” also prompted questions about the power of faith, or the impact a loss of faith can have.

The second question was: How can you keep following God in times of suffering? This section utilised survivor testimonies. Students read or viewed carefully selected examples which demonstrated how survivors relied on their faith to help them through, while others discussed the spiritual challenges they endured as they attempted to maintain their faith.

In the third and fourth component of the unit, we look at the issues of bystanders and righteous among the nations who ignored or followed their religion’s command to care for others in need. Looking at the statistics of Righteous Among the Nations compared with the Jewish population at the time provides a stark reminder of just how few contributed.

Initially the Christian examples of the ten Boom family in the Netherlands and the French village of Chambon sur Lignon were provided as case studies, and some discussion was made regarding the role and inaction of the Holy See. When considering the Muslim faith students. considered examples of the Albanian Veseli family, and the Hardaga families from the Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations archives.

Finally, the fifth question contemplated interfaith relations in the present and asked how have Christians and/or Muslims tried to repair their relationship with Jews? Core values of compassion in showing respect for people of different faiths have been emphasised, and the unit concludes with a contemporary application in acknowledging the value of humanity irrespective of faith backgrounds.

Ultimately through this project the goal is for students to be more accepting of people of other faiths and to realise that passive complacency can be as destructive as inaction.

The intentional attempted genocide of the Jewish race by Hitler termed the Holocaust or Shoah remains one of the most significant cultural and historical events within the last century and as such needs to be remembered.

The atrocity and continuing impact on those involved has resulted in the establishment of museums, societies intended for reconciliation and education programs so that ‘the world may know’, as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum slogan states, and the legacy will continue through time immemorial.

It is important to further education and empathy in the students who learn from us, allowing opportunities to continue the legacy into future generations. This process could be most effectively achieved in secondary schools, since the nature of the subject matter is deemed too confronting for younger students.

However, they can still encounter simpler conversations or literature which deals with concepts such as fairness, equality and love for humanity. But confronting concepts will often lead students to question their role in humanity, and personal identity and faith. How could such evil things happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? How could God let it happen? Using Fowler’s theory of faith development, Neuman (2009) discusses connections to religious affiliations allowing adolescents to cope with challenges. The earlier questions are consistent with a latter level Fowler’s Stage 2 belief, where the challenge of ‘bad things happening to good people’ defies the formerly logical image of a compassionate and just God.

Such an experience has immense capacity to challenge a young person’s belief system and image of God if there is no guiding support. This can also produce a stagnation in reception of God. “For example, although the most people pass out of Stage 2 during adolescence/young adulthood, there are some adults that never do. For them, this stage becomes a fixed reality.” (Neuman, 2009, 47).

Francis (2012) connected treatment of people being connected to the way they perceive God. “People who perceive God as basically unloving are influenced by this role model to respond to others in an equally unloving and unempathetic manner.” (Francis, Croft and Pyke, 2012, 303). This negative perception and resulting response clearly influences the behaviour of young people and it is important that educators are aware of the ramifications when hearing spiritual messages that may depict God in a negative light.

Affixing images of God as being connected and interested in one’s own wellbeing can have a positive impact on young people’s worldview. Educational strategies aimed at enhancing personal meaning may both promote their own happiness, construct a healthy awareness of religious experience and promote positive encounters with spiritual and religious messages (Holder, Coleman and Wallace, 2008). Baring (2012) proposes that religious education and experiences for children approaching adolescence should aim to reconcile lived experience and connect their image of God rather than viewing them as distinctive elements.

Hill (2014) cites McGrath (2010, 3) “Faith is fundamentally a relational matter: it is about trusting God” and concludes that faith can be formed “within the social and emotional connectivity of relationships.” (p. 19). The capacity to assist in developing a student’s faith and an image of God as trustworthy and worth following is therefore prospectively available to the teacher, but only through established relationships with their students. “Christian teachers have a mandate to first ensure that their relationships with students are warm, caring and supportive, and that they build trust and love in these relationships.” (Hill, 2014, 21). It is important to participate where possible in the holistic care of the child through the variety of opportunities the school may offer, building pastoral support and a relational community.

Obviously, this does not guarantee the faith of the child, but it does help build their image of God’s people in community.

Hill (2014) proposes several means through which teachers can present an image of God and make his presence active through curriculum and relational discussion. “Our task is to make God’s presence real to students through discussing and exploring their life worlds, struggles and issues incidentally throughout the day. For example, teachers can show how God can be sensed as present in human connections… Encounters with inspirational people may also prove beneficial in building an image of God and his people.” The multiplicity of ideas presents a helpful awareness that the image of God is all around us.

To talk about the strength of the human spirit and the capacity to preserve what is best in humanity in the face of the worst humanity has to offer. Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Y’israel on his lips.” (Frankl, 2008, 214).

I started with a quote from Elie Wiesel, and now I conclude with another, taken from the same speech.

And now the boy is turning to me. “Tell me, he asks, “what have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?” And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep the memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget we are guilty, we are accomplices. …that is why I swore never to be silent.” (Wiesel, 1986).

Erin Hick


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