After a three-year hiatus, a bill to mandate genocide education in Connecticut’s public high schools may again be on the table.
The General Assembly’s education committee last considered the idea in 2008, at the request of schools and school systems throughout the state that lacked an appropriate and effective genocide-education curriculum. The proposed bill required the State Department of Education to develop a genocide-awareness curriculum to promote understanding of the meaning, history, and consequences of genocide. This curriculum would not be mandatory, but rather would be made available to any school district or school interested in offering genocide education.
The bill was supported by a wide range of community members, including Holocaust survivors, educators, high-school and university students. Members of the Connecticut Coalition to Save Darfur (CCSD) also lobbied for the bill, but sought funding for genocide intervention, a financial commitment the education committee was unwilling to make.
Recently, CCSD leadership agreed to drop the request and the campaign for genocide education resumed. Last week, members of the loosely organized Connecticut Teach Against Genocide (CT-TAG) campaign met separately with State Sen. Andrea Stillman and State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chairs of the Connecticut General Assembly education committee, to expand the existing unfunded mandate.
Participants included Rev. Timothy Oslovich, CCSD chair; Bob Fishman, executive director of JFACT (Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut), Rabbi Philip Lazowski and Dr. Joseph Olzacki, co-founders of The Identity Project on genocide education at Bloomfield High School; and Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut and longtime constituent of Sen. Stillman.
At present, Connecticut mandates that the public high-school social-studies curriculum include U.S. history and a half-year of civics. The statute reads that the Holocaust “shall” be taught as part of the U.S. history component. But “shall” is different than “must,” says Fishman.
“We know, through JFACT’s Echoes and Reflections Holocaust-education program and the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at University of Hartford, that there are a lot of teachers out there teaching the Holocaust,” he says. “But we don’t know how many school systems are teaching the Holocaust.”
By expanding the mandate to read “Holocaust/Genocide education,” the issue gets tricky. As an aspect of World War II, the Holocaust is considered part of U.S. history, but other genocides are not and would have to be added to a world-history curriculum mandate.
“Teach Against Genocide” is a state-by-state campaign for genocide education, spearheaded by Save Darfur coalitions throughout the U.S. Participants lobby local school boards and state legislatures to include human-rights and genocide education in the school curriculum, and provide teacher trainings and materials, in the belief that every student should learn about mass atrocities and what can be done to prevent and stop them.
Olzacki says that he was inspired to participate in CT-TAG when Holocaust survivor Joseph Korzenik died earlier this year. Korzenik, a West Hartford resident, dedicated his later years to educating young people about the Holocaust and the dangers of prejudice and hatred. Korzenik chaired the annual Holocaust commemoration in the senate chambers of the state Capitol in Hartford. He visited schools throughout New England, New Jersey, and New York, lecturing about the experiences he endured as a young man.
“Joe was a passionate advocate of Holocaust/Genocide education,” says Olzacki. “I cannot count how many times he would come into my office at Bloomfield High School and talk about ‘the kids’ and how he was concerned about the next generation – making sure that they understood the lessons of the past. He would ask, ‘what if they forget? ‘Who will teach them when we are all gone?’