I have taught both topics in British schools for nearly 20 years and I am convinced that for children under the age of 14, and quite possibly 16 learning about the holocaust in anything other than a limited way results in totally inappropriate responses ranging from snickering, simplification and downright indifference. The more ‘earnest’ the teaching the less ‘earnest’ the response. I have seen perfectly decent, balanced and intelligent children simply laughing at the sight of the most horrific images.
This is not to say that we should not teach the holocaust at all. Beyond the age of 16 it can have a profound effect and no adult should be ignorant of the major episodes of genocide in recent history. Even before the age of 16 there is value in including a look at the holocaust, but not I would argue at the expense of the more accessible study of how and why things came to this point. Children can understand the effects of the great depression, or the first world war and they can easily understand history through individuals.
We must understand that teaching history to children is not the same as presenting history to adults. The young mind is not simply a miniature version of the adult mind. By definition they are still developing their cognitive skills and emotional responses. A few good examples may illustrate this point.
The first world war is a harrowing topic of truly global importance to understanding the modern world. Teachers may be forgiven for wishing to underline the horror by dwelling of the scale of the destruction. I used to do the same myself. However, I found that most children could not empathize sufficiently and quickly focused on the drama of the battles and the somewhat gruesome nature of certain injuries or perhaps the technology of war and the experiences of families on the home front. I no longer fight this tendency because I have come to realize that by developing an interest and an understanding I am creating the seeds of empathy when their minds are old enough to take it on board.
In Britain a popular topic for younger secondary students is to look at the bubonic plague of the 14th century. Some estimates suggest a third of the population was wiped out in this biblical style apocalypse. However most children love this topic taking great delight in stories of gore and suffering. Better still are pictures of open wounds and piled up dead bodies. The most earnest teaching runs completely counter to the instincts of children, in this case usually around the ages of 11-12. Does this mean these children are evil, inhumane or simply callous? Of course not. Children have to conceive of the world in this way, possibly because nature protects their minds from taking true horror on board least it damages them in the future.
Anyone who believes the holocaust can be understood by children under 14 in a way we would all want adults to understand it has got a very crude appreciation of children’s minds. Teach history in a way children can engage with even if that means we emphasize topics in a very different way to the way we would for an adult audience.