Facing History in Transition as Armenian Genocide Centennial Approaches

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Facing History 1

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BROOKLINE, Mass. — Facing History and Ourselves is a unique international organization which has done yeoman’s work in promoting understanding of genocide, including the Armenian and Jewish cases, as well as human rights, by training educators since the end of the 1970s. It is at present in a period of transition. Its founding executive director, Margot Strom, is retiring from the leadership position, while still remaining involved with the organization. Roger Brooks, dean of the faculty and chief academic officer of Connecticut College, and holder of the Elie Wiesel Professorship in the Department of Religious Studies, will begin in December as president and chief executive officer.

Peter Balakian, Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of Humanities at Colgate University, has been involved with Facing History since the mid-1990s. He has been a member of its academic board for the last 15 years. He said that “Facing History has had an enormous impact on Armenian Genocide education in the US curriculum; its study guide on the Genocide has done a great deal to bring this history into the mainstream in a comparative context; this has been groundbreaking. Facing History is an innovative intellectual and cultural institution and has done much to advance the state of education in the US and now globally. It embodies the best of a progressive American educational tradition.”

Margot Strom explained how it all started as a course incorporating “the ideas and events that led to the Holocaust”: “We were at one of the eight schools in Brookline teaching social studies — the [John D.] Runkle school. At one point, roughly in 1976, I, Bill Parsons and others were invited by a very phenomenal director of social studies to a conference that he and the superintendent, [Dr. Robert] ‘Bob’ Sperber, had been involved in organizing on the history of the Holocaust. I had a master’s in history by then, and a very great interest in learning how to teach social studies and history through multiple disciplines. It was at that moment that I really got in interested in the scholarship and the scholars. I knew nothing much about the history of the Holocaust then. And I only remember hearing in graduate school a heated conversation between a professor talking about the Armenian Genocide and Turkey with a student.” A few years after the conference, probably by 1979, Strom knew that this was the field for her.

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Strom began studying and learning, and each of the conference participants became mentors to what soon became the Facing History organization. She received a federal Title IV grant. Strom said, “I am an adult learner, and when I started teaching in my classroom I began learning together with my students and their parents. People kept bringing me new materials. Working with people in a giant network, in Harvard education, was a benefit. People were likeminded, interdisciplinary, and valued democracy, and when they looked at injustice, they said, what can I do. People gravitated to me with the federal grant. Brookline let us write it, and it turned out to be a great books course for teachers. We did K[kindergarten] to 12th grade, and librarians, teachers, Parent-Teacher Organizations, and many other people were involved.”

Strom continued, “I knew other teachers needed to teach this, so I left teaching and started the organization.” By 1982, Facing History formally turned into a non-profit organization. Today it has 180 staff members and 10 offices, including several abroad, and an annual budget of 25 million dollars. It estimates that it reaches over three million secondary students every year through its programs and the teachers it prepares.

Adam Strom, Margot’s son, who joined the organization in the early 2000s, and now is Chief Officer for Content and Innovation, added that Facing History did not just provide workshops or curriculums and books for teachers. It was unique in also assigning a person to follow up with each teacher.

Adam said, “We believe less is more, preferring to focus on things in particular to raise larger questions. I would rather see a course that does a few things in depth rather than a little bit of everything. So, students look at the relationship between the individual and society and understand the factors influencing choices people make, especially about the treatment of other people. They examine issues of membership—how do nations define universal obligation? They look at the role that science plays. Facing History is about particular histories and human behavior, both the universal and the particular.” History can provide some perspective for students to understand problems in contemporary society involving prejudice and conflict. And while history is an important part of Facing History, it is approached in an interdisciplinary fashion. Students must taught to ask moral and ethical questions while learning particular skills and information.

Facing History deals with many types of prejudice and bigotry. The Armenian Genocide was an integral part of its curriculum from the very beginning, and Margot Strom relied on many Armenians who were helpful. Manoog Young and others at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, Margot Strom said, “began to teach me. They helped me bring Rev. [Vartan] Hartunian into my classroom, and later Bill Parsons and I worked on new materials. I still remember Hartunian — to see him as a speaker allows you to walk in the shoes of others as victims, and as new immigrant citizens.” Strom later interviewed a descendant of US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau about the Armenian Genocide.

She emphasized that “Scholars have been incredibly generous.” Richard Hovannisian, Professor of Armenian and Near Eastern History at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Balakian spent a great deal of time helping Facing History develop its resources on the Armenian Genocide. She said, “They want us to get the story right, and we do the best we can. We take from the latest scholarship and books, and always are trying to remain up to date.”

Facing History’s main resource book for teachers, Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, is centered on the Holocaust. However, it also looks at other instances of genocide, and contains several sections on the Armenian Genocide. It shows some of the parallels and connections between the Armenian case and the Holocaust.

In 2004, Facing History published a resource book specifically focusing on the Armenian Genocide: Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians. Adam Strom said, “We don’t just care about these histories because they are ethnically identified. This is why we gave our book this title. We had great mentors in the Armenian community. Richard Hovannisian and Peter Balakian read every single page, literally. We feel very privileged. Both have been incredibly kind to the organization.”

Developed through a grant from the Armenian-American philanthropist Carolyn Mugar, this 198-page volume according to Samantha Power accomplished what Facing History “does best: bring history to life, gather moving portraits of suffering, indecision, and heroism, and force young and older readers alike to ask what we would have done if we had faced such wrenching moral dilemmas.” Facing History has lesson plans for teachers who wish to cover the Armenian Genocide in their classes, and provides various additional resources on this topic, including a list of speakers.

Margot Strom said that the general resource book and the lesson plans were in the process of being updated, including the treatment of the Armenian Genocide, as new research will allow going deeper into issues. Among other things, more is known about how the coiner of the term “genocide,” Raphael Lemkin, understood the Armenian Genocide. This year, new video interviews of scholars on the Armenian Genocide will be conducted and older materials will be digitized. Audio versions will be made from some of the key readings in the Armenian resource book.

Adam Strom said, “We will have an online workshop for education which will use the Armenian Genocide as a particular case study to raise general issues. We hope we can run it again and again. It will be live and interactive. Probably we will video some sessions.”

Aside from these efforts, for the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, Facing History will organize workshops in regional offices, and partner with community events. There are a few things in the works that will be announced later. Adam Strom declared, “Facing History wants to be a good partner in the anniversary. We think our role is education.”

In the meantime, Facing History continues to expand. It is striving to double the number of teachers and students it impacts as part of a five-year plan, and expanding the use of modern technologies to leverage its teaching capabilities during a period in which issues of religious intolerance appear more and more frequently.

 

 

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