In the early summer of 2021, just about the time Stephanie Wolf learned she’d been awarded a two-month journalism fellowship in Germany, the Louisville public radio reporter noticed a curious thing happening here at home. At school board meetings and state legislatures, there was an intensifying debate about what students should be taught about slavery and racism in the United States.
Wolf thought it would be interesting to use her time in Germany to explore how students there learn about the Holocaust and compare that to how Kentucky schools teach about the history and legacy of slavery. She pitched the idea to one her colleagues at WFPL-FM, education report Jess Clark, who had recently covered a Jefferson County school board meeting that was disrupted by people angry about the teaching of Critical Race Theory.
The two reporters decided to collaborate on a documentary called A Critical Moment, which explores how Germany and America teach students about painful aspects of their nations’ pasts. The program aired on WFPL in January and is available to stream on the station’s website.
Wolf interviewed German students, teachers, and education officials about why the Holocaust is a mandatory part of the curriculum there, while Clark talked to their counterparts here about the current debate over how slavery, segregation and racism should be taught in Kentucky schools.
A Backlash to Critical Race Theory
Critical Race Theory is an academic concept that explores how the legacy of racism in America has shaped people, institutions, and public policy. Although the theory has been around for 40 years, it surfaced in national headlines following the social justice protests of 2020. Clark says the controversy over CRT has been driven largely by conservative media outlets. That coverage, she says, incited parents to go to school board meetings to voice their concerns about how topics like slavery and systemic racism could make children feel uncomfortable and leave them ashamed of their country.
Despite the uproar, CRT is generally meant for college-level studies and rarely taught in public elementary and secondary schools.
“People say that they’re worried about Critical Race Theory,” says Clark. “But what they’re worried about when you get to the heart of it is these… equity and inclusion initiatives, anti-racist trainings, and then sometimes even just history that muddles this myth that we have about American exceptionalism.”
In the documentary, Clark talked with historian Adam Laats, who studies conservative activism in American schools. He says the controversy points to differing views about how history should be taught. One position is that students should learn about the bad things in our nation’s past so they can understand the forces that created them and be prepared to prevent them from occurring again in the future. The other approach, according to Laats, is to teach history that creates a positive national identity in the minds of young people.
“For many conservatives, the purpose of public education is to praise the history of the United States, to exemplify the greatness of the nation so that students will be inspired to be good citizens,” says Clark.
Following similar actions in other state legislatures, Kentucky lawmakers pre-filed several bills last summer and fall about the teaching of subjects that they say could promote divisions among students based on race, sex, or religion. Proponents argue the bills would allow students to learn the basic facts of U.S. history without engendering discomfort or shame and without leading young people to believe that America is an inherently racist nation.
But the Kentucky youth that Clark talked with for the documentary say they want to know the entire, unvarnished story of America.
“As one student said, ‘You can’t just learn about the good without knowing about the bad, you have to know about everything,’” Clark says. “You have to learn the good with the bad to understand the greatness of America.”
Teaching About the Holocaust in Germany
During her time in Germany, Wolf accompanied a group of high school students on a field trip to Dachau last September. Wolf says the mandatory Holocaust curricula in Germany requires some kind of memorial visit, but the state of Bavaria, where she stayed, specifies that high school students must tour a former concentration camp.
“They do not sugarcoat this at all,” says Wolf. “They were very frank about what occurred on the very ground that they were standing.”
As the tour began, Wolf says the students behaved like typical teenagers, more focused on each other than the presentation by tour guides. But their mood suddenly changed when they got to the crematorium where the Nazis killed tens of thousands of Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. The tour included photographs taken by American soldiers who liberated the camp in 1945 depicting piles of dead, naked bodies.
“It made this very real for them, and nobody said a word as we walked through the crematorium,” says Wolf.
There are some far-right politicians in Germany who argue there is too much emphasis placed on Holocaust education, according to Wolf. But she says that sentiment is still on the fringes. She quotes a German education ministry official in Berlin who contends important teachable moments can occur when students feel uncomfortable.
“He pushed back against this idea that learning about their past atrocities is anti-German or somehow tarnishing the legacy of the country,” says Wolf. “He felt that the German thing to do – or even the patriotic thing to do – was to face the past.”
The students that Wolf met at Dachau also seemed to grasp the importance of the experience.
“We just have to look back at the mistakes that our country has made,” says a 14-year-old boy in the documentary. “We have to face them and hope that something like this really never happens again.”
“I’m uncomfortable,” says a 15-year girl, “but I think it’s okay.”
The journalists acknowledge that the Holocaust and slavery are not an apples-to-apples comparison. Clark explored the differences between the two with Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times Magazine reporter who created the 1619 Project about the history and legacy of slavery. Clark says former President Donald Trump labelled the project un-American, while Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell called on the U.S. Department of Education to abandon curricula that includes the 1619 Project and other materials that he says make history politicized and divisive.
Hannah-Jones agrees there are shortcomings in trying to compare teaching about the Holocaust to instruction on slavery and racism. She points out that the Holocaust represents a few years out of Germany’s long history. For the United States, though, history has unfolded over a much shorter period.
“You can look at the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and still have thousands of years of Germanic history to be proud of,” recounts Clark. “If you were to set aside the part of history in which Black people were being enslaved, in which Native People were being forced from their land and killed, that’s the majority of American history.”
Because racial oppression is so deeply engrained in the nation’s relatively brief history, Clark says that makes it difficult to separate out and challenging for some people to confront.