Massachusetts Passes Genocide Education Law

May 19, 2022

A new educational law in Massachusetts encourages teachers to teach about genocide—including cases in US history—the in the context of human rights. The connection with ALBA’s teaching institutes is clear.

In December of 2021, running counter to efforts by Republicans in many states to pass classroom censorship laws, Republican Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts signed S. 2557, An Act Concerning Genocide Education. Massachusetts became the 21st state to pass similar legislation. The effort in Massachusetts followed many years of sustained effort.

The Massachusetts law places the study of genocide in the context of learning about human rights broadly. Rather than singling out specific instances, the bill encourages the study of the characteristics of genocide and its many cases across world history, including current instances. The law also directs students to learn to “reject the targeting of a specific population and other forms of prejudice that can lead to violence and genocide.” The state will provide professional development to ensure effective, high-quality implementation of the law.

Massachusetts-based Emerging America has partnered for many years with ALBA to offer a graduate course for teachers: America and World Fascism: From the Spanish Civil War to Nuremberg and Beyond. A spring 2022 section of the course again explored ways that teachers can aid students to understand how fascists could gain power and commit brutal acts of genocide with broad public support. Teachers found consensus that the letters of Lincoln Brigade veterans and other documents made available by ALBA are a vital resource to help students ground their understanding in the complex experiences of real people from history. Teachers were disturbed also to learn of the ordeal of Spanish refugees after the fall of the Republic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided a poignant background to the course.

Teachers in the course also discussed how to address controversial and difficult material. They examined strategies to help students to avoid common pitfalls such as “presentism” (judging the past from today’s perspective) and false equivalence (seeing all sides in any conflict to be equally culpable and equally brutal). Key strategies for in-depth understanding and intellectual integrity include providing students with adequate context for each document and allowing students to explore a rich set of primary and secondary sources in varied media from multiple perspectives. Above all, teachers must help students practice backing up claims with relevant and reliable evidence and with solid reasoning.

Emerging America curated a list of Resources for Teaching about Genocide. The list includes teaching resources from leaders: Facing History and Ourselves, Learning for Justice (education program of the Southern Poverty Law Center), Anti-Defamation League, and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In current work to draft Disability History curriculum, Emerging America applies the study of genocide to campaigns by U.S. Eugenicists across the 20th century to involuntarily institutionalize and sterilize people with disabilities. Emerging America’s new curriculum emphasizes the agency of disabled people. So the lessons on eugenics begin with objections to eugenics in primary sources from contemporaries in the early 20th century. A centerpiece of the lesson traces that resistance forward to a 2012 North Carolina program to set up an Office of Justice to Sterilization Victims and to pay compensation to thousands of disabled people forcibly sterilized by that state.

Rich Cairn is a Civics and Social Studies Inclusion Specialist for the Collaborative for Educational Services, where he founded the Emerging America history education program in 2006. He is a national leader in service-learning, civic engagement, and Disability History.