New Museum Planned for Auschwitz

February 19th, 2011 by De oppresso liber

Clothes taken from prisoners at Dachau concentration camp as they were found by American soldiers who liberated the camp in 1945.
National Archives, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer [111-SC-206193]

Discussions are underway regarding a new exhibit at Auschwitz.  To date, the displays at the most famous Nazi death camp were “unadorned and mostly unexplained.” Now Piotr Cywinski, the museum’s director, hopes to change that.

The New York Times reports that Cywinski wishes to better explained what happened at the site, the experience of the victims.

Traditionally, the Polish state used Auschwitz to tell a story of the persecution of Polish-Catholics, largely ignoring the six million Jews exterminated at Birkenau.  Major conflicts erupted when Catholics sought to commemorate the killings by erecting crosses at the various sites.  Attempts to fix the oversight, such as one instance where the Star of David was placed on crosses in a misguided effort to commemorate Jews and Catholics alike, only made matters worse.

The new plan would essentially turn Auschwitz-Birkenau into a more traditional museum (although Cywinski is careful to say that his plan involves little in the way of technology as that would diminish the authenticity of the site).  It is unlikely that his effort will pass without conflict, however.

Telling the story of Nazi genocide necessarily means recounting the story of Nazi Germany, placing greater emphasis on the perpetrators.  Victims groups will almost certainly dislike this.  More daunting still, the rise of the Nazis and their path to the “Final Solution” is not at all clear cut.  There were undoubtedly truly evil men who enjoyed killing, but the real story is one of what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” For every guard who enjoyed shooting victims, there were many more Germans who simply operated railway switches, pushed paper, or simply refused to speak up.

There is nothing banal about Auschwitz.  How does one juxtapose the complexity of the Nazi narrative with the unmitigated horror of mass murder?

Holocaust Memorial Day

January 27th, 2011 by De oppresso liber

It is Holocaust Memorial Day today.  The Guardian published a series of survivor memories.


January 27th, 2011 by De oppresso liber

The Guardian newspaper just released an interesting video about a living history display in Nantwich, England.  Worthwhile viewing.

Oh, and as you watch, remember two classes that we’ll be offering next year: “Telling Tales of the Past” (EXP) in the fall and “Modern Tourism: Heritage” (ADV) in the spring.  Both classes will deal with subjects like historical reenactment.

Genghis Khan, Eco Warrior

January 27th, 2011 by De oppresso liber

It seems that Genghis Khan was good for the environment.  As you probably know, the old boy created the largest contiguous empire in human history, stretching from China to Europe.  In the process, he killed upwards of 40 million people, piling their skulls in neat piles to intimidate his enemies.

Charming man, you say?  Well, a new study by the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Energy finds that Genghis Khan was actually exceptionally green!  Wiping out civilizations and laying waste to huge territory is good for the environment.  Genghis evidently cleared 700m tons of carbon from the atmosphere—”roughly the quantity of carbon dioxide generated in a year through global petrol (gas) consumption.”

Despite his impressive success, we’re going to walk way out on a limb and suggest that the Genghis strategy will not make it into very many Environmental Studies how-to guides and that Al Gore will not recommend it in his follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth.

Academically Adrift?

January 20th, 2011 by De oppresso liber

The release of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, is inspiring a great deal of discussion among higher education types and with good reason.  After several years of research, the two authors discovered that many college students are learning absolutely nothing.  No improvement in four years.  Nada.  Obviously, this is a deeply disturbing finding and it should rightly keep a lot of faculty and administrators up nights.

The problem with the extensive coverage, as blogger Philip Nel points out, is that precious few commentators acknowledge a vital part of what  Arum and Roksa learned: humanities majors see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.”  Vocational programs, of which there are a proliferating number, are where the problems exist. The traditional liberal arts degree continues to produce well spoken, literate, and thoughtful graduates who are impressively prepared for whatever career path or graduate program they decide to pursue.

Parents and students think that they are learning the skills to pay the bills when undergraduates opt for a vocational bachelor’s degree, but the reality is quite different.  Turns out that there is a reason that employers find themselves in the position of needing to pay rather a lot to provide their workers with the very skills that those employees would have learned had they majored in history, English, philosophy, music, fine arts, religion, and so on.

Commentators ought to point out this finding, stressing that there is a bright spot in higher education and that this shining light is found in humanities programs.  Parents, meanwhile, ought not ask: “What can <insert name> do with a humanities degree?!”  Instead, they ought to encourage their kids to pursue the liberal arts.  What can you do a with a humanities degree?  What can’t you do?!