Holocaust Education in the Digital Age: Prompting Critical Thinking about Holocaust History
We live in a digital era riddled with distractions that compete for our attention. We are online when we are on the go and when we are not. Young people spend an average of nine hours a day on devices chatting with friends, playing games, watching videos — and sometimes doing all three at once. The Museum seeks to engage youth in critical thinking about the history of the Holocaust and its lessons for today’s world. How can we redefine Holocaust education for the digital age?
In addition to the challenge of competing claims on attention, we are witnessing an increase in Holocaust denial and antisemitism, spread primarily through social media and the Internet. To combat this hatred, the Museum must expand access to accurate information about the Holocaust and help young people discern the truth amid an onslaught of misinformation and falsehoods.
“We know that explorations of Holocaust history can both spark learning and increase motivation to make a difference in the world,” said Sarah Ogilvie, the Museum’s chief program officer. “Now we must determine how best to harness evolving technologies to provide new experiences that enable immersive learning, scholarship, and collaboration.”
Asking Why, Not What
Traditionally, Holocaust history has been taught with a focus solely on what happened, when, where, and to whom. That is the approach the Museum adopted when it debuted its online Holocaust Encyclopedia nearly 20 years ago. At that time, the encyclopedia contained roughly 130 articles in English. Today, it includes 840 articles; has been translated into 15 languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Russian, and Spanish; and annually serves more than 14 million people all over the world.
Although comprehensive in scope, the encyclopedia lacks a critical thinking framework that encourages people to ask questions, draw connections, and analyze issues and ideas carefully. “Presenting facts and figures alone does not help people see the connections between this history and the world today, and their role in it,” said Ogilvie.
The Museum is undertaking a massive transformation of this core educational resource to prompt reflection on key questions from the Holocaust: Why do societies fail? Why do individuals become perpetrators, collaborators, or onlookers? What are the warning signs of genocide? Why are they ignored?
As part of this transformation, the re-envisioned Holocaust Encyclopedia will reflect changes both in the way people learn and in how they access information online. Museum historians and digital experts are retooling the articles to enhance context setting, optimize them for display on mobile devices, and incorporate compelling visuals that underscore the relevance of this history. “The main goal is greater accessibility for students and a general audience,” said Sarah Lumbard, director of Museum Experience and Digital Media, who is overseeing the project. “We want each person who engages with the encyclopedia to learn something new, to pause and reflect, and ideally to wrestle with the question of why the Holocaust was possible.”
The new encyclopedia, expected to come online in summer 2018, also will feature recent research and scholarship on the Holocaust, as well as more items from the Museum’s collection, which has grown dramatically and is undergoing its own digital transformation so that it can be accessed anywhere, anytime.
New Pathways for Learning
Digital platforms provide myriad opportunities for participatory and informal learning, as well as for interacting with primary sources. Over the past year, the Museum piloted two new experiences for high school and college students that demonstrate this potential as it relates to Holocaust history.
In conjunction with its next major initiative on Americans and the Holocaust, the Museum developed a “citizen history” project — History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust — that involves high school students in researching what ordinary Americans knew about Nazi persecution of Jews while it was occurring. Specifically, students look in archives of their local newspapers for articles on key events related to the Holocaust. To date, approximately 1,100 people have submitted more than 8,000 articles from newspapers in every state plus the District of Columbia.
Their findings are available in an online database accessible to the general public, scholars, and historians who, until now, had studied coverage of the Holocaust only in major metropolitan newspapers, such as the New York Times. The database includes news about the Holocaust in papers big and small from Florida (“Nazi Plan for Wiping Out Jews To Be Outlined,” November 25, 1942, Sarasota Herald-Tribune) to Alaska (“Polish Jews Doomed to Die,” December 4, 1942, the Petersburg Press). The information uncovered can help paint a fuller picture of American reactions to the Nazi threat.
For university students and their instructors, the Museum recently created a one-of-a-kind tool that curates and contextualizes primary sources created by Jews to document their experiences during the Holocaust. Experiencing History: Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust features a cross-section of materials from the Museum’s collection, such as diaries, letters, reports, photographs, historical film footage, and oral testimonies, along with a brief description of the historical context in which the material was created, its author or authors, and its relation to larger themes about the Holocaust.
“Existing online source collections did not provide adequate historical background information to facilitate their use in the university curriculum,” said Emil Kerenji, applied research scholar in the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. “In addition, they privilege perpetrator documents, which reduce the victims to the faceless category of ‘Jew’ and silence their individual voices. We sought to correct this marginalization, an effort that is both intellectually and ethically vital for the study of the Holocaust at the university level.”
Currently in use on some 200 campuses, the tool has proved valuable both for the information it provides and for its user-friendly design. Faculty can easily curate a selection of materials applicable to the lesson they are teaching and encourage students to explore it individually or in small groups. “The resource allowed me to give the students increasingly complex assignments where they learned how the individual diarists’ writings fit in with the overall chronology of the Holocaust,” said a history professor from South Dakota.
As the Museum continues to develop its digital tools, it is leveraging its most precious asset: the world’s most comprehensive collection of Holocaust evidence. The collection is the foundation for understanding this history in all its complexity and will serve as a permanent rejoinder to deniers. Even as the digital age opens new pathways for exploring Holocaust history, haters exploit new technologies to peddle misinformation, minimization, or outright denial.
“In the midst of this battle for ideas, the Museum must be the go-to resource for the truth about the Holocaust and what this history means for us today,” said Ogilvie.
This article was first published in Spring 2017.