Teaching Genocide

A principal and a teacher battle over a high school Holocaust course

"I worry," Baer wrote in an April 24 memo to Navarro, "about those who would make the Holocaust too schmaltzy, almost glorifying it in its horror, trying to be the most sincerely horrified observers, and missing the point that any and all of us could participate in similar mistreatment of others -- either by commission or omission."

Zislis suggests Baer's personal connection might have rendered him incapable of handling the matter logically.

Phil Larson, a department colleague of Navarro's, says that what triggered the cancellation remains a mystery. Larson also defends Navarro's handling of the remembrance week.

"I thought it went wonderfully well," Larson says. He tells the story of a painfully quiet student from Vietnam opening up immediately after the survivor's address. "We got back to the classroom to pick up backpacks and he starts talking about how it reminded him of what he went through leaving Vietnam, and what it was like [in refugee camps] on the Thailand border. I scheduled a class discussion the next day."

For his part, Navarro says the course proposal, which he completed a year ago, was something of a promise he was keeping to himself and students who urged the establishment of such an elective. To prepare himself, Navarro had attended special courses and training programs. Most recently, of course, he attended the Washington conference. "To teach it poorly," he concedes, "would be worse than not teaching it at all."

Navarro stresses his dedication to applying the course's lessons to the students' present day. "Look at Bosnia," he implores in a mild-mannered, almost whispered tone. Navarro also points to the widely circulated comments, attributed to Marge Schott, the bilious owner of the Cincinnati Reds Major League Baseball team, that Adolf Hitler wasn't all bad -- at the start.

Although Baer's decision-making and rationale for canceling the course are open to criticism, Holocaust studies specialists agree that attention to the effect of the history on students is not without merit.

"It is potent material," says Jack Weinstein, who heads the Bay Area office of "Facing History," the New York-based Holocaust educational training program. "It deserves to be handled well at every level."

But Weinstein cautions that diluting the facts is not an answer. Instead, he advocates pulling no punches. What's more, convey the lessons in the context of the lives of students: "Talk about choice-making, conformity, and moral decision-making. Ask students to examine their own community -- whether it is a classroom or city -- and identify membership in the club and whether it is open or closed."

Navarro says the points are not lost on him, adding that exercises in journal-writing and role-playing had been included in his plan for just that reason.

"Listening to the principal's concerns," says Navarro, "I can only say it is an argument for more education -- not less education."

And, it may turn out that Mountain View high schoolers eventually get more. Though the course is canceled, Navarro says, the principal has not yet told him to stop spending the course materials budget. He hopes that raises the prospects for a reinstatement, if not this year, then in 1997-98.

A favorite quote of Navarro's from William Faulkner comes to mind as he closes the interview: "History isn't dead. It isn't even past.

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