Could Better History Classes Have Stopped Trump?

Are Americans being forced to confront the history of World War II? And, if not, is this partly to blame for the widespread acceptance of Trump’s rhetoric?

By Rebecca Heilweil

Tagged Donald TrumpEducationHistoryRepublican Convention

It was barely two or three hours into day one of the Republican National Convention, and Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans were already being compared to Nazis and fascists.

Senator Gordon Humphrey, one of the leading #NeverTrump Republicans, said on Monday evening: “This is not a meeting of the Republican National Committee. This is a meeting of brownshirts.” When asked to clarify, he explained: “I mean people who act like fascists. They might not be fascists, but they act like fascists they have the lack of manners of fascists, and in this respect they are only too reflective of Donald Trump himself.”

And Humphrey isn’t alone, nor is he the first to make this comparison. Over the past few months, the media has bombarded us with evidence of the parallels between Trump and the terrorizing leaders of World War II. Think pieces comparing his political rhetoric to Hitler, Mussolini, and Goebbels are countless, and studies have attempted to link a tendency for authoritarianism with Trump support.

Recently, Rachel Maddow confessed to Rolling Stone that, “Over the past year I’ve been reading a lot about what it was like when Hitler first became chancellor,” adding “I am gravitating toward moments in history for subliminal reference in terms of cultures that have unexpectedly veered into dark places, because I think that’s possibly where we are.” Stephen Colbert even crashed this week’s events, stealing the stage to clearly insinuate that the RNC resembled a scene from The Hunger Games (the wildly successful young adult trilogy about a dystopian future suffocated by extreme economic inequality, suppressed speech and authoritarianism).

Of course, Trump and many of his supporters have now been directly connected with the promotion of anti-Semitism. Donald Trump’s speech for Republican Jews flirted with dangerous stereotyping. After that, Trump was criticized for a tweet of Hillary Clinton that closely paralleled Nazi Germany’s use of the Star of David. He has previously retweeted a Mussolini quote. When he demanded a rally audience pledge their support to him, the spectacle eerily resembled a scene from the Third Reich. Neo-Nazis on Twitter supporting Trump have been targeting and harassing prominent Jewish journalists online for months.

Yet a large portion of the U.S. public does not find Donald Trump’s rhetoric or proposals haunting enough to deny him their support. Americans just don’t seem to buy these comparisons, despite their frequency and gravity. It’s hard to believe that Americans simply don’t care (though it’s possible some don’t). Perhaps it’s more plausible that many simply don’t know.

Regardless of whether Trump truly is or is not similar to World War II leaders, this ambivalence raises an important question about our education system: When are American students and citizens being forced to confront the history of World War II, one of the worst tragedies of human history? And, if they aren’t, is this partially to blame for the seeming admissibility of Trump’s terrifying rhetoric among so many Americans?

While there is no explicit study of World War II knowledge or familiarity among Americans, the statistics we do have aren’t pretty.

A 2000 Gallup poll found that only two thirds of American teens could link Hitler with Germany, a statistic down from 79 percent in 1977. And in 1993, 38 percent of adults and 53 percent of high school students could not explain the meaning of the term off Holocaust, according to a Roper survey. A Washington Post piece from 2004 found that, while students could identify the domestic impacts of World War II, America’s actions abroad were significantly more illusory. A 2007 piece in SF Gate also noted a diminishing historical understanding of World War II among high school students.

Even among the general public, World War II knowledge is disheartening. A 2010 Harvard study found that American knowledge of the Holocaust is low, even relative to European countries (while anti-Semitic hate groups are growing). Surveys conducted by the American Jewish Committee found that, when compared to Sweden, Austria, Poland, France, Germany, and the U.K., Americans had the lowest level of Holocaust awareness. Less than a third of Americans could correctly name the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust, and only 44 percent could identify Auschwitz, Treblinka and Dachau as concentration camps. Almost 40 percent of Americans answered both these questions incorrectly, nearly double that of U.K. respondents (who the study ranked sixth in terms of Holocaust knowledge).

More generally, a 2004 Gallup poll discovered that 37% of Americans couldn’t identify what country the United States was fighting on D-Day. A study by the Anti-Defamation League found that only 55 percent of those living in the Americas believe that the Holocaust happened and is accurately described by history.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum keeps track of the history and growing prevalence of Holocaust deniers in the United States, exacerbated by the internet’s conspiracy-theory culture.

The history field is not blind to its Trump problem. Since July 13, historians including David McCullough, Ken Burns, Robert Caro, Vicki Lynn Ruiz, and Ron Chernow (the author of the Hamilton biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda) have come together and produced video interviews posted over Facebook, which have looked at what history teaches us about the dangers of the current presidential election. City College history professor Eric Weitz has argued that, “That is the lesson from the right-wing populist upsurge in Weimar Germany, which culminated in the Nazi assumption of power. The political language of fear and hostility directed at ‘foreign’ elements (never mind the fact that many and even most of those so-called foreigners had been residents and citizens for generations) enables moderate and radical conservatives to come together….That is the real and pressing danger of the current moment.”

But even if the nation’s top history professors see danger in Trump, it’s unclear the message would ever reach their students. A recent survey found that many colleges don’t require history, let alone a course about World War II, the Holocaust, or the political origins of genocide.

Even among accelerated students taking Advanced Placements exams (theoretically college level courses) in 2013, only about 175,000 students took World History, which discusses the Holocaust—less than half of those who took the American History exam. Only 87,000 took the European History exam. There are about 15 million high school students in the United States.

And even if these courses, and other non-A.P. global history classes, do “cover” the Holocaust, it’s unclear whether they’re at all effective at teaching historical sensitivity.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum outlines what an appropriate Holocaust curriculum should look like, specifically cautioning that, “Events of the Holocaust, and particularly how individuals and organizations behaved at that time, should be placed in historical context. The Holocaust must be studied in the context of European history as a whole to give students a perspective on the precedents and circumstances that may have contributed to it.”

A frame from a 2015 AP World History Project on YouTube.

Yet on Youtube,  high school students have uploaded Holocaust-related videos, seemingly submitted as A.P. World History final projects. Students, and presumably their teachers, have found it appropriate to reenact “scenes” from the Holocaust in school yards, “interview” Hitler, create “music videos” and write lyrics that hypothesize Anne Frank survived the atrocity in Taylor Swift-esque covers. And compressed within only an eight- or nine-month curriculum that ostensibly includes all of world history, it’s difficult to imagine students investing the time or effort truly studying the event in a meaningful way.

Debates over curriculums are, of course, political, and flood governing bodies from local school boards to Congress. What students learn are a product of their classmates’ and teachers’ experiences, local policies, state regulation and guidance from the federal government. Still, it’s worth asking why so many schools don’t teach, or simply brush over, this history.

Of course, the most likely lobbyist for Holocaust education are Jewish-Americans. Only five states require Holocaust education in their schools(New Jersey, Illinois, California, New York and Florida). In most parts of the country, Jewish-Americans are about or less than one percent of the population. Moreover, Jewish-Americans tend to be Democratic, college graduates and live in or near urban areas (just 4 percent of Jewish-Americans live in rural parts of the country). Living in highly concentrated, well-educated areas, it’s unlikely that Jewish-Americans feel pressure to advocate for Holocaust education in places they predominately don’t live.

But perhaps the lack of World War II and Holocaust education stems from the fact that there is relatively little partisan gain (until this presidential election, perhaps) for World War II education advocacy. Sex education, evolution, climate change, the Civil War, and the portrayal of slavery have taken the forefront in partisan educational debates. These issues have stirred larger public debate, and reflect larger fractures in the American civil culture.

There’s also a vague notion of keeping politics and morality out of the classroom. While it’s likely most teachers feel comfortable unilaterally condemning the Holocaust, it’s less certain that the political elements that fed Hitler’s power would experience the same critique, let alone be covered at all. It’s also far-fetched that curriculums, especially in areas prone to teaching a patriotic American-exceptionalism, would highlight the initial American ambivalence toward the Holocaust.

Alternatively, the lack of Holocaust awareness may signal American indifference to global affairs more generally. Who cares what happened in Europe, so long ago?

Whatever the reason for American apathy toward the complicated history of World War II, it’s created real consequences. Education is political, and reflects Trump’s campaign in more profound ways than as a simple reminder that bullying is not okay, and that plagiarism is academically unacceptable. Civic education means nothing without historical lessons—and to allow our children to forget, or worse, never know, endangers us all.

Read more about Donald TrumpEducationHistoryRepublican Convention

Rebecca Heilweil is a student researcher and writer at the University of Pennsylvania, and intern at Democracy Journal.

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