Northwestern commissioners on the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission seek to improve education on genocide

From+left%2C+Sarah+Cushman%2C+Danny+M.+Cohen%2C+Charlotte+Masters+%28and%29+Samantha+Oberman.+The+four+were+among+the+six+NU-affiliated+individuals+recently+appointed+to+the+Illinois+Holocaust+and+Genocide+Commission.

Graphic by Hank Yang

From left, Sarah Cushman, Danny M. Cohen, Charlotte Masters (and) Samantha Oberman. The four were among the six NU-affiliated individuals recently appointed to the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission.

Hank Yang, Reporter

In December 2020, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced 17 appointments to the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission in an effort to develop the state’s education on past atrocities in the world. Six of the 17 were Northwestern professors, alumni and students.

Illinois was the first state in the United States to mandate Holocaust and genocide education in all public elementary schools and high schools in 1990. The Commission seeks to offer social studies teachers guidance on how to memorialize the Holocaust and other genocides in public schools across Illinois.

SESP Prof. Danny M. Cohen was appointed co-chair of the Commission.

“We’re essentially charged with overseeing (the mandate), helping to develop guidelines (and) helping districts and other organizations and schools think about teacher training,” Cohen said. “We need to support schools to make sure that they have the resources, and that teachers have the skills to be able to implement the mandate.”

As a grandchild of a Holocaust survivor and part of the LGBTQ+ community, Cohen said he has strong personal motivations for improving education on the Holocaust.

“When I was 18… I realized that I’ve been taught about the Jewish narrative of Holocaust history, but no one has ever taught me about all these other narratives, including the queer narrative of Holocaust history,” Cohen said.

His research specifically focuses on bringing those “hidden Holocaust histories” into Holocaust education.

Sarah Cushman, the director of the Holocaust Educational Foundation at NU and a member of the Commission, said she believes the mandate doesn’t go far enough. She said she hopes the Commission can help “put some teeth into the mandate” by defining what Holocaust education should be and how educators should implement it.

“(The mandate) doesn’t say anything about what people should actually teach and learn,” Cushman said. “What I’m hoping is that the Commission will be helpful to teachers, not (by) creating a particular curriculum, but helping them develop a course or content that is important to them and their students.”

Samantha Oberman (SESP ’19), currently works as a learning specialist at The Noble Academy in Chicago, was also chosen to be a Commissioner.

Oberman has already attended an Illinois teachers’ meeting as a representative for the Commission. She said she and other social studies teachers were able to revise the standards to make them “more social justice oriented and more inclusive of all people in this country.”

SESP senior Charlotte Masters was also selected to join the Commission. Masters, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, brings a youthful perspective to the Commission.

Throughout high school, Masters was part of the USC Shoah Foundation, which seeks to educate students through the testimony survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust. Masters also created a speakers bureau to bring Holocaust survivors to speak to students in schools in the Washington, D.C. area.

She said she hopes to break down the facts and details of Holocaust and genocide education and personalize them through first-hand testimony.

For Cushman, education about the Holocaust and genocides serves an important purpose to secondary level students in America.

“One of the important reasons to learn about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany is to understand that… democracy is fragile and is dependent on the participation of the people who are governed,” Cushman said. “And if people who are citizens in democracy don’t believe in and care for the institutions of democracy, then (the institutions) become vulnerable, and I think that’s something that becomes really clear in the history of Nazi Germany.”

Susan Abrams (Kellogg ’90), CEO of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, and history Prof. Doug Kiel were also named to the Commission.

The Commission is set to have its first meeting later this month, where it will define goals and how to move forward.

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Twitter: @hankyang22

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