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Michigan, Rhode Island to Require Education About Genocide in Schools

Students in Rhode Island and Michigan will learn about genocide, after governors in both states signed laws this month that require schools to teach about the history of events like the Holocaust and the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians.

The states are the first to add such a requirement in nearly 20 years. While many textbooks and state standards in social studies include genocides, just five states (California, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, and New York) specifically require students to learn about the Holocaust. Pennsylvania passed a bill in 2014 that encourages, but does not require, school districts to teach about genocide. 

In Rhode Island, the Associated Press reports, Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, signed a law that requires school districts to teach middle and high schoolers about genocide at least once before they graduate. The Rhode Island law requires the state department of education to share curricular resources with schools.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed a law that specifically requires schools to teach about the Holocaust and the 1915 massacre, the Associated Press reports. 

Snyder issued a statement in which he emphasizes the importance of teaching students about these difficult topics but also said that local communities should determine the specifics of how events are taught.

Teaching Genocide

The laws in Rhode Island and Michigan come just a year after the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, and both make specific reference to the event.

In the few years surrounding the anniversary, a number of states passed resolutions commemorating the Armenian genocide. The resolutions touch on a long-standing controversy: The government of Turkey does not acknowledge the deaths perpetrated by the Ottoman government as a genocide, saying that the number of dead is overblown and that people died during civil unrest. Pope Francis made news earlier this month by being the first representative of the Vatican to publicly refer to the event as a genocide. 

James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said that genocide is a topic that every high schooler should understand and be able to think about critically.

He said there are instances in which what constitutes a genocide is contested — the history of the American Indians being a key example.

"When you start identifying particular examples of genocide, thoughtful and knowledgeable people will differ on whether a particular historical process was genocide," Grossman said. "An educated person ought to be able to think about why it matters and what it is."

He said that the states should consult with historians about the subject matter to be covered in courses. 

In a statement about the new requirement, Snyder notes the controversy:

Despite the definition of genocide being defined by the United Nations becoming the norm in international law, not all countries and governments accept it as such. Because of this, there is continued debate as to what historical events should be classified as genocide.  

But he writes that more than 20 countries have defined the Armenian event as a genocide. Snyder writes: 

Our next generation of leaders needs to have the wherewithal to recognize and help prevent widespread harm to their fellow men and women. Teaching the students of Michigan about genocide is important because we should remember and learn about these terrible events in our past while continuing to work toward creating a more tolerant society. 

Education Week reported nearly a decade ago that schools had long since started teaching about the events in Armenia as a genocide, and explored experts' thoughts on history programs that focus on a theme such as genocide instead of presenting events chronologically.

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

A recent Newsweek story tracks Rhonda Fink-Whitman, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who went on a quest to convince legislators in her state, Pennsylvania, of the imperative of teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides, including more recent tragedies in countries like Sudan and Rwanda. 

Fink-Whitman made a video in 2013 in which she asked Pennsylvania college students to answer some questions about the Holocaust and genocide. Most of the students have a sketchy understanding at best—one guesses that World War II happened 300 years ago.

According to the Newsweek story, that video has since galvanized people in other states, including Michigan, to push for bills that require students to learn about this part of history.

The Holocaust Museum and PBS are among the organizations that offer resources for teachers teaching about genocides. The Holocaust Museum offers guidelines for teaching about genocide that include defining the word, investigating the context in which the genocide was perpetrated, avoiding simple comparisons between different historical events, and teaching about the positive actions taken by people and countries in the face of genocide. 

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