“I am here to talk to you today about my grandma’s involvement in the Holocaust during World War II.” Thus Jessica in Year 11 began her account in our Holocaust assembly of how her grandmother, Danka Rembaum, survived as a Polish Jew during the war years. Her testimony is extraordinary. Upon arriving at Auschwitz:
“Grandma joined a long queue of prisoners, waiting to get a number scratched into their forearm, a tattoo. With all the horrors that were already taking place, the significance of this single event did not cross her mind. It was just another step that was necessary to take in order to survive. But these were not the sort of numbers that I could draw on my arm in pen. These were the sort of numbers that are intended to replace your name, permanently. Numbers that separate the empowered from the dehumanised.” (Jessica)
Jessica’s grandma survived the horrors of one of the greatest acts of barbarism in history. Killing on an industrial scale. Yet Jessica was concerned to remind the senior school that the Holocaust is not just an historic atrocity. Bosnia, Rwanda and the recent use of poison gas in Syria point to the continuing acts of inhumanity which stain the humanity of us all.
The broader question inspired by Jessica’s brave, inspiring assembly is to what extent a school should be the crucible for discovery and debate about the real world tragedies which fill our screens on a depressingly regular basis. Given the educational debate is driven by league tables and the knowledge agenda, where does an understanding of inhumanity and barbarity sit? This question strikes at the heart of education.
And we return to the purpose of education. The danger of a target driven culture with prescribed content is that we become immersed in the process and lose sight of the importance of encouraging compassion and awareness of real life issues. Should schools be actively promoting an awareness of world affairs? The assumption that young people will naturally absorb awareness of global events is perhaps too optimistic. Yes, we all strive to educate thinking, curious young people but if we fail to expose them to the harsh world around them are we damaging their true education. An education about their life.
As educators we are reviewing our curriculum. We offer breath and the opportunity to pursue aspects of learning which are not examined. We are now reflecting on how we can incorporate a global outlook in an already congested curriculum beyond the days where the timetable is collapsed specifically for this purpose – for example, Holocaust Memorial Day. As our educational lords and masters prescribe curricular issues and qualifications, I urge them to consider how we create appropriate space for debate about the challenging world inhabited by our young people.