GenEd Pushes Armenian Genocide Education in U.S. Schools

One of the many GenEd events

BY NANORE BARSOUMIAN
From the Armenian Weekly

Despite the fact that official U.S. acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide is still subject to the political currents of our time, Armenian Genocide education is included in the history curriculum of many U.S. schools.

To encourage and facilitate genocide education and counter the institutionalization of denialist ideologies, a number of organizations are actively supporting genocide education inside schools. In part due to such efforts, teachers now have at their fingertips the resources needed to teach about instances of genocide, including the Armenian Genocide.

The Genocide Education Project (GenEd) is one such organization that provides teachers with the tools needed to teach about genocides, in particular the Armenian Genocide.

The Genocide Education Project, a nonprofit organization, was founded by Raffi Momjian and Roxanne Makasdjian in 1997 after they realized that although California had included the teaching of the Armenian Genocide in their educational framework in the mid 1980’s, it had yet to be implemented.

“What we learned was that teachers were not teaching the subject because they themselves did not know enough about the genocide and they did not have appropriate, age-specific resources to do so,”says Momjian, adding that the failure to teach about the Armenian Genocide stemmed from the same challenges that face all public school teachers, namely, lack of funding and resources.

Therefore, GenED adopted the mission “[t]o help prevent genocide by assisting educators, students, and educational organizations with teaching and learning about genocide and other major human rights violations, with specific focus on the Armenian Genocide.”

The organization works with public school teachers to publish, create, and obtain the resources needed to teach about the Armenian Genocide, taking into consideration an educator’s preferred mode of teaching (i.e. traditional, computer-based, through survivor testimonies). Workshops organized by GenED aim to introduce educators to the various resources available and the most effective methods for teaching about genocide. These workshops are often organized together with school districts.

The Genocide Education Project has compiled an online resource library (www.TeachGenocide.com) with downloadable resources (many at no cost) on the Armenian Genocide and other gross human rights violations, for use by teachers in their classrooms. This online collection includes lesson plans, survivor accounts, workbooks, newspaper articles, educational posters, links to websites, videos, maps, and books. The organization has also created an online classroom for students and an interactive lesson plan called “Nicole’s journey,” which introduces the Armenian Genocide through the experiences of Nicole, “an Armenian American trying to return to the historic lands of her family.”

The biggest impediment the organization faces is the lack of funding to implement its various programs, says Momjian. Similarly, teachers also lack the funding and time to commit to the task.

“In this day and age, just asking teachers to spend a few hours a school year to attend a workshop is almost an impossible request for them to consider,” he adds.

Teaching about genocide is a challenging task because there is a “wrong” way of approaching the topic, says Momjian. He discourages teachers from simply focusing on names, dates, and places. Instead, he argues that “the most important learning from such topics is why and how such events can take place and how to identify potential genocides that can erupt in the future and maybe even what steps one can take to help prevent them from happening.”

Momjian notes that there is another danger—to teach about one instance of genocide. “Irrelevant to which genocide is selected, teaching about only one implies that it is the only circumstance that such an event has taken place, making it seem like an anomaly, a situation so catastrophic that it will make students believe that it can’t really happen again.”

He notes that genocides in the 20th century have claimed more lives than all the wars combined. “We are still today seeing a genocide taking place in Darfur and another building ‘momentum’ in the Congo,” adds Momjian, who believes that comparative genocide education is the most effective method of teaching about genocide.

Just as Armenian Genocide education is finding its way into academic institutions, so is its denial. Two cases in point are courses offered and dissertations written at the University of Utah, which have at their core denial of the Armenian Genocide; and Turkish lobby efforts against the inclusion of the genocide in U.S. textbooks.

Roxanne Makasdjian, co-founder of GenED, notes that there still are world history textbooks that do not mention the Armenian Genocide. One of the textbooks she encountered, World History (published by McDougal Littell, 1999), included “a very denialist/revisionist version of the events,” she says. Appearing in a sidebar on p. 365, titled “Spotlight On: The Armenian Massacre,” the text read:

“One group that suffered greatly for its independence efforts was the Armenians. By the 1880′s, the roughly 2.5 million Christian Armenians in the Ottoman Empire had begun to demand their freedom. As a result, relations between the group and its Turkish rulers grew strained.

“Throughout the 1890s, Turkish troops killed tens of thousands of Armenians. When World War 1 erupted in 1914, the Armenians pledged their support to the Turks’ enemies. In response, the Turkish government deported nearly 2 million Armenians. Along the way, more than 600,000 died of starvation or were killed by Turkish soldiers.”

“The Turkish lobby fought hard against California’s inclusion of the Armenian Genocide in its state curriculum [in 1985] and continues to protest when additional bills have been initiated,” says Makasdjian. The Turkish lobby has protested in other states, as well. “In each case, language was watered down in response to the Turkish protests.”

Many scholars view genocide denial as a crime in itself. Psychologist and historian Israel Charny once wrote that “Denials of known events of genocide must be treated as acts of bitter and malevolent psychological aggression, certainly against the victims, but really against all of human society, for such denials literally celebrate genocidal violence and in the process suggestively call for renewed massacres—of the same people or of others.”

According to Gregory H. Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch and former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, denial is the eighth and final stage of genocide.

Currently, 11 states require the teaching of the Armenian Genocide in schools through legislative mandates. Those states are California, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

Momjian argues that the requirement does not mean much by itself. “Requiring a specific subject be taught does not by itself mean it will be implemented. States must fund such efforts and take specific action to reach out to teachers to help them meet the requirements… That is not being done in any form of efficiency or effectiveness these days.” However he believes that by adopting such requirements states will be encouraging schools to work with organizations like the Genocide Education Project. He also notes that the organization does work with teachers from states that do not have such requirements; and “[those teachers]do not care that much if it is required in their state that the Genocide be taught or not. We can and will continue working with them to help them.”

A July 8 press release announced the establishment of the GenED Rhode Island chapter through the efforts of two volunteers, Pauline Getzoyan and Esther Kalajian. Their aim is to introduce and encourage Armenian Genocide education in Rhode Island high schools.

The chapter’s first task was to draft a proposal, together with the national office, to hold a workshop at the Rhode Island Department of Education’s annual Summer Civics Institute, sponsored by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. The proposal was accepted, and on June 29 over 200 Rhode Island teachers attended the workshop, which was led by Sarah Cohan (the education director for the national office), Getzoyan, and Kalajian.

The chapter and national office will next work on creating lesson plans about the Armenian Genocide based on the experiences of survivors and their descendents who settled in Rhode Island.

To support or learn more about the Genocide Education Project, visit www.GenocideEducation.org.

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