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Why Teach about Genocide?

by Brian Crawford

As a teacher, I always need to know why I am teaching a lesson before I teach it. It is not enough to engage students in work that is merely interesting; there must be some lasting understanding at stake.

Having taught about and written a novel on genocide (The Weaver’s Scar), I have often wrestled with the “why” of teaching about genocide. Is it so that we can work toward the elusive “never again”? Is it to help students understand the political forces of oppression? Is it so that we can increase students’ empathy? I have always felt that the answer is yet to all of these questions, but my answer always seems nebulous and too abstract.

When I was in Rwanda, I asked a number of Rwandans—students, teachers, survivors—the following question: “What do you think American teenage students should know about Rwanda, past or present?” I deliberately left the question open, not wanting to focus on the genocide. Interestingly, I received variations of the following answer from almost all of those whom I asked: “Students should learn to recognize injustice when it is small, such as when they hear people calling names or treating one another badly, because it is in name calling, and especially in not reacting to name calling, that it all starts.”

This answer was an aha moment for me, for it provided me with the answer for why we should teach about genocide. Yes, students need to know the history of genocides to understand where unchecked discrimination and prejudice can lead. But more importantly, they need to be able to act when they recognize warning signs. It is unrealistic to expect students—or adults, for that matter—to be able to stop the machinery of genocide once it is in full motion; 1994 taught us that. But what we all can do is to call out smaller injustices when we see them: name calling, stereotyping, everyday exclusions. When one person calls another a hurtful name, and an observer does or says nothing, the name-caller is empowered, and the victim is further victimized. But when we call out the intolerance when we see it, we weaken the resolve of the name-caller and make it harder to act in such a way the next time around. It can be as simple as “That’s not funny” or “How would you feel if you were in his/her shoes?” to make someone realize that targeting someone else is not worth it.

It is much easier to keep a tree from taking root than it is to fell a grown oak. We all have the power to say something. And if enough people say something, we can greatly reduce hatred and intolerance. Now, let’s say it together.

Brian Crawford is a resident of Seattle, Washington, where he teaches seventh- and eighth-grade language arts. He has visited Rwanda and taught himself basic Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda. Proceeds from The Weaver’s Scar will go toward Richard’s Rwanda IMPUHWE, which was set up by a group of Seattle students to support Rwandan girls’ education.

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