- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Those who pursue careers in higher education usually begin with a sense of benevolence. They work in colleges or universities because they feel good about benefiting the young and about helping them, if they need it, to overcome earlier handicaps that would otherwise condemn them to lives of struggle and desperation.
But a paradox soon makes itself felt. One of the ways we seek to help our young is by giving them a clearer sense of human history, human culture and human achievement. Since some of the most notable human "achievements" have taken place in the perpetration of atrocities against other human beings, those who conduct American higher education can be forgiven an occasional tremor of conscience. Are they teaching the young people committed to their charge how to feel truly, deeply depressed?
These mixed feelings are brought to a boil of sorts when it comes to "teaching the Holocaust." Yes, we all agree, the Holocaust should be taught. It sums up, in its supreme way, the horrors otherwise touched upon by so much of the Western curriculum, from ancient epics and tragedies to the novels of the 19th and 20th centuries. Kafka's protagonist finds himself metamorphosed into a giant cockroach. How does that compare with millions of people being forced, overnight, to begin wearing a yellow star on their clothes a badge inviting mistreatment by their neighbors and former friends?
The victorious Syracusans, in Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War, confine their Athenian captives to "life" in the nearby quarries, where many of the captives proceed to die. Is that as bad, or not quite as bad, as Auschwitz and Treblinka? Andromache, the wife of Hector, gets the wrenching news of the death of their son, slaughtered by the victorious Greeks. Is that better or worse than the countless mothers who, between 1940 and 1945, watched their children die while the murderers cackled with glee?
And the question to which higher education personnel still have no definitive answer is the most uncomfortable one of all: What effect, on a long-range basis, does the history of human atrocity have on the life, the mind and the "inner vision" of the student? Does it make him or her feel less secure about "life in a civilized society" which might swiftly turn uncivilized and threatening? Does the long tally of "Holocaust betrayals" make all civic idealism ring hollow? Are those exposed to so much horror while they are still at highly impressionable ages more likely to feel that their proclaimed "national values" are in fact insecure and transient?
It's hard to work in higher education, in other words, without having to deal with the largest question of all the one that asks how the experience of the Holocaust has affected the long-term thinking of everyone who lives on our planet today. For those outside as well as inside our colleges and universities, the Holocaust is a "curriculum" one that affects how all the other curricula are studied.
Are we reading a Dickens novel in which the death of a single character is a heart-rending tragedy? "How quaint," we are tempted to conclude. "Imagine making a fuss like that over one single death a death not even perpetrated with humiliation, deliberate degradation, and complete anonymity."
What higher education teachers and administrators fear most, when it comes to the teaching of the human past, is that they are pouring cold water on the last of our human hopes and illusions. Even in the past 10 years, after all, we have been given reason to recall the human facility in the perpetration of massacre, genocide and sexual crime. The dark cloud over our heads seems to darken with each passing year.
Meanwhile, all that academicians seem to be able to do, when it comes to cheering their students up, is to refer them to the domains of religious faith, where priests, ministers and rabbis can perhaps recover the pearl of good cheer from the muddy depths of our species' actual record.
The contemplation of human atrocities has, as we know, a long history. A century ago, when it was still fashionable to make fun of "how people thought in the Middle Ages," Fox's "Book of Martyrs" was a favorite target of those who had been touched by higher education. Imagine the devout Christian of several hundred years earlier would spend hours in working his or her way through a book devoted to human suffering. And whereas a college-educated person would read a novel like Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" with a sense of relief "At least I never had to go through anything as bad as that" the medieval and Renaissance audience would move from one atrocity to another with bated breath.
The attitude of grimacing skepticism thus induced in the West's "intellectual class" helped to account for the rigor with which the news of Nazi atrocities was resisted in Western nations. Skepticism had become second nature. The very fact that someone was once again "blowing the atrocity horn" made it seem likely that no atrocity had in reality taken place.
So the task of those who now work in higher education is greater than ever. It consists, as it has always consisted, of a difficult combination of tasks: to tell the rigorous truth while not leaping carelessly to certain emotional conclusions.
Yes, the Nazis under Hitler perpetrated their atrocities on a scale difficult to fathom, even after we have read all about "IBM and the Holocaust." Millions were rounded up and shipped to their horrible deaths, conducted amid the jeers and incidental cruelties of the perpetrators, while the rest of the world persisted in doubting that anything unusual was going on. Isn't that enough to make you feel awful about the species to which we happen to belong? Now, how do we keep our children from feeling the exact same way?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is George Washington University president and professor of public administration.

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