Teaching Genocide

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

When school bells ring in a few weeks to usher in a new academic year, students at one Bay Area high school should be excused if they eye administrators with an extra measure of suspicion.

Last spring, 53 upperclassmen at Silicon Valley's Mountain View High School signed up for a course scheduled to debut Aug. 28. To some school observers, tenured social studies teacher Frank Navarro, the course's architect, had a hit on his hands. Billed as a comparative study of the Holocaust, the Armenian and Cambodian genocides, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, and Native American history, the class was on its way to selling out both its fall and spring sections.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the first day of school.
After the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District had approved the course, opened it for registration, allocated $1,250 for supplies -- and authorized a five-day research trip for Navarro to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. -- Mountain View High's principal, Tom Baer, canceled the class.

The move -- which Baer made formally in a June letter informing enrolled students they'd be placed in a Latin American history course instead -- has drawn sharp criticism from some parents, students, and Holocaust scholars.

"I was really mad that it was canceled," says Christine Sasville, who enters her senior year at Mountain View this month. "We met with him, we wrote letters. We couldn't get through to him." And, Sasville adds, Baer is likely to pay a price in lost esteem among students. "There are a lot of kids who are going to back Mr. Navarro up on this one."

The controversy at Mountain View is not really so much a quarrel about the appropriateness of Holocaust study in public education. California law requires high school instruction on the topic, and many districts throughout the Bay Area go well beyond the state curriculum mandate that the Holocaust be taught. Nor is the issue in Mountain View even a question of sufficient community appreciation for the subject. Indeed, the city of Mountain View is slated to play host to the traveling Anne Frank exhibit during the fall, with teachers and administrators having planned educational tie-ins with their schools.

What is deserving of attention is one school principal's reading -- perhaps misreading -- of the emotional and intellectual mettle of California high school students as the millennium draws nigh.

Publicly, Principal Baer, who could not be reached for comment, rests his decision in large part on a professed concern that the morbidity of the material might overwhelm its students. In private, the principal is more specific, according to Navarro, who claims Baer said that some students could be pushed toward suicide, and that others might become inappropriately fascinated with Nazism.

According to the school newspaper, Oracle, Baer shared his misgivings in a memo to a key curriculum committee Jan. 3, stating that a course on genocide has "the potential to further confirm some students' confused views of the world as an evil place."

Another apparent concern was Navarro's supervision of a student-organized Holocaust remembrance week last April. "It was poorly handled," says Vice Principal Sylvia Talaricho, referring to the advance work. "It was exactly what we didn't want: students bombarded with atrocities disconnected to what goes on in the rest of the school day."

In addition, according to Talaricho, Baer's concerns related to timing as much as substance. "We were very excited about the class. ... Mr. Baer had questions about the readiness of this class to go in the fall."

Critics of the move aren't buying Baer's qualms. "High school students are much more intelligent than Tom Baer is giving them credit for," says parent Sharon Zislis. Zislis is the mother of a 1996 Mountain View High graduate, Rachel, who helped organize the school's April Holocaust event.

A swift retort also was delivered from a scholar at the National Conference of Christians and Jews in San Jose. Glenn Earley, an expert on Holocaust education, fired off a letter June 19 to the school district's superintendent, Donald Phillips, assailing Baer's decision. "I am concerned when a course on the Holocaust is proposed, accepted, announced, registered for by a good number of enthusiastic students, and then, for no sound, substantive reason I can see -- canceled," Earley wrote.

Phillips counters that there's nothing untoward about dropping a course for a semester or year if it needs more burnishing: "It's not a situation of sitting on, destroying, or burying a course." He says the school district approved a course concept, akin to "design approval" at an auto manufacturer. But it's up to Principal Baer to decide to give the green light before putting a new course on the street.

There may be more at work than presentation and students' ability to digest the darkest period of modern history. Navarro says Baer hints at being skittish about having a gentile teach such a course, though the superintendent contests that assertion. Moreover, Baer has a family history that clearly is weighing heavily on him, with both of his parents' relatives having been largely wiped out by the Nazi death machine.

"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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