There are so many things to learn about in life and so little time to learn them. And the more you think you know about a thing the more surprised you are at your ignorance of the matter when you delve more deeply into it.
But all learning begins with a spark, and that spark can lead to a lifelong fascination.
When I was a kid, maybe 6 or 7, I was walking along East 93rd Street in Manhattan with a woman who was helping raise my siblings and me following the death of our mother. Her name was Ellen Plunkett and she came to New York from the U.K. after "The War," during which she lost her beloved husband, Michael (in the Normandy campaign).
I’ll never know what prompted her to do so — perhaps an overheard conversation from a passerby — but Ellen, holding my hand, suddenly leaned into my ear and whispered, "You know they put them in the ovens, Billy — the Jews. Six million of them."
I can’t say for sure if that spurred a lifelong interest in the Holocaust for me, but I do know that by seventh grade, when a film of some of the atrocities was shown to my classmates and me at school, I found myself enraged at peers who talked throughout it. For no reason whatsoever — I’m Irish Catholic — it felt like a personal affront. I felt like I had some special ownership of the Holocaust, which of course I do not. Interest in a topic will do that to you.
I mention this story because Holocaust education has become an issue in Albany this session. Alarmed by a lack of general knowledge about the genocide among young adults — nearly half of young Americans couldn't name a single WWII concentration camp in a recent survey — legislation has been sponsored in the Senate and Assembly to require a special annual test of students to determine how much they learned about the Shoah.
The so-called Holocaust Teaching Bill, no doubt encouraged by the rise of anti-Semitism in America, comes from an understandable impulse, but it’s probably a bad idea, a slippery slope in the making. Pass this, and legislators will be politically encouraged to sponsor endless measures to determine what’s taught based on what will get them the most votes.
The political pressure to support bills like this could become enormous. Vote no on the Holocaust Teaching Bill — or an Irish Famine Act or Rwandan Genocide measure — and you could be labeled all kinds of nasty things at election time.
Only one Assembly member, Democrat Michael Benedetto of the Bronx, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, had the courage to oppose reporting this bill out of committee. His argument was that it would impose an "unfunded mandate" on already overtaxed schools, which may or may not have pleased the powerful teachers union. Whatever his motivation, he should be given credit for having the guts to take the political risk of opposing the measure.
Students should be taught as much as possible about the Holocaust. It’s a seminal event in human history, but singling it out for a special test isn’t worth the risk of what it could do to education in New York. Regents and AP tests should be able to ensure that the topic is adequately covered in schools.
Hopefully, for many, it will serve as a spark, because there’s so much to learn.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.