An unexpected treat when I went to the movies in Atlanta to see Denial, the engrossing new film about the libel case that British Holocaust denier David Irving brought against American historian Deborah Lipstadt. After the movie, the real Dr. Lipstadt (who teaches at Emory) held a Q&A with the audience. You can just about make her out in my awful photo below, but that's her also on the screen with Rachel Weisz, who portrayed her in Denial. The movie was great, but this isn't a movie review as such, and I want you to see it, so no spoilers here. Just know that it's a film you won't forget. The Q and A was even better, and it is a pity that it's not humanly possible for Dr. Lipstadt to be on hand for every showing.
What I have found striking about this case (and I am reading the books about it as fast as I can) is how alarmingly timely it is, and how urgently we need to revisit what constitutes history education. Most people are getting our views from either media sources--mainstream or not-- that feed us what we want to hear (and yes, I include myself in this, to my eternal shame), or, worse, from internet babble.
We absolutely have to make the case for "slow learning", if you'll forgive the phrase, for students' reading books--lots of them--and for initially engaging young children in history in such a way that they will want to read more for themselves. What that is going to require is for historians to take a far more prominent role in developing curriculum, bringing their understanding of history as much more than "must know" factoids. It's hard to see the hand of historians in state and national curricula, and the anecdotal evidence I've found suggests that they're either brought onto committees as window-dressing, or aren't numerous--or assertive-- enough. Agree or disagree, historians who have been involved in the process of developing curriculum are warmly invited to share their experiences with me, privately if need be.
What's at stake? Education itself, which in all but a handful of elite institutions (K12 and college) is in danger of being reduced to vocational training. Democracy, which cannot thrive among a citizenry that is abandoning rationality and empiricism. Democracy, as Churchill observed, is the worst form of government, except for all the others. The Holocaust was the product of one of those "others".