Finding a Historical Context for Tolerance

A history class provided an opportunity to expand students’ perspective.

At the conclusion of my college-level modern European history courses a few years ago, I focused a lecture on Nazism and the Holocaust. I showed Alain Resnais’ 1955 film Night and Fog, with its horrifying footage of death camps. Amidst the terrible images of piled skulls and bodies stacked like firewood, perhaps the most disturbing sight of all was the guilt-free, oblivious expression of the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity. After watching the film, an African-American student asked, “What’s wrong with the Jews? Why do people hate them so much?”

Her question made me confront the stark evidence of issues that might arise in the context of a history course. While I understood that my students were generally open-minded, they were also working through hidden biases and trying to form their own concrete understanding and perspectives.

The student’s question seemed laden with assumptions, which—initially—triggered my anger. But her question gave me an opportunity to explain the dynamics of anti-Semitism in a way that made sense to her and connected with her knowledge of institutional racism and its effects. I didn’t want her to assume guilt on the part of victims.

As educators dispensing what we hope will be illuminating lessons, we have no idea what experiences, prior education, beliefs and faiths our students embody. This question was one of the wake-up moments that periodically remind me that the classroom is always a reflection of society at large.

My lifelong goal is to create a classroom in which ideas—even offensive ones—can be discussed openly and debated freely. That this student felt secure enough to ask a dangerous question forced me to remember that this same freedom can create tricky moments in which we instructors have to think on our feet.

I appealed to empathy, the human emotion most central to building tolerance and democracy.

“Let’s look at is this way,” I said to the class. “What was wrong with the Africans who were enslaved by whites? Was anything wrong with blacks who were subjected to Jim Crow laws, lynching and other forms of discrimination in the United States following the abolition of slavery?”

We started a class discussion based on historical events. I explained that racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance of any kind originate with the persecutor, not the victim. The fact that these behaviors and beliefs are taught and learned reinforces the importance of education. If we do not identify and discuss the origins of discrimination and persecution, people will continue to suffer. Once we identify how these irrational hatreds begin and why they persist, we can take action to eradicate them.

My inquisitive student’s eyes opened a little wider as she listened to my words. Suddenly, she got it.

The reality for educators is that our students need our help in becoming more tolerant or open-minded. My students in this class saw anti-Semitism within a much larger history of human intolerance and, hopefully, will take that knowledge and perspective into their futures.

Silos-Rooney is an assistant professor of history at MassBay Community College in Massachusetts. She blogs about higher education policy, student and educator concerns and new education technology.

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