Part of what I teach includes the history of the 20th century. That means the Armenian Genocide, the Holodomor, the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, the Great Leap Forward, the Killing Fields, the Vietnamese Boat People, the Partition of India (and the 1970 creation of Bangladesh), the Cultural Revolution, and various smaller revolutions and upsets. There’s a lot of good and great things as well, but for some students, this is their first sustained collision with nasty people doing bad things.
They don’t like it. I don’t like it, either. I’d love to teach a wonderful story of progress and improvement, of the world getting better and people living in ever more prosperous peace and harmony. Alas, human behavior has not changed all that much since the serpent sidled up to Eve and said, “Hey, can I interest you in some fresh produce? Organic, lots of anti-oxidents, locally sourced!” Bad people kept on doing bad things, now assisted by modern technology.
Most students are aware that there are nasty people out in the world and that very bad things have happened. A few . . . have been more sheltered, and what they see and hear and read comes as a terrible shock to their system. A few of that minority come a little unglued, and I don’t blame them. I don’t sugar-coat things, although I do try to keep what I show them PG-13. My goal isn’t to horrify, but to teach, using documents and images from the past. Students should think, recoil, but not run away screaming.
How do you teach about evil? There’s not a good way that I’ve found, other than showing it as it was, being matter-of-fact, not going overboard but not softening things, either. I also point out the good, the hopeful, the people who tried to stop evil, the good guys in the story of mankind. It’s not all darkness, although the Second Thirty Years War does have some moments . . . And I don’t go into some of the worse moments of other conflicts, the things like, oh, putting landmines and explosives in toys to deliberately kill and maim children, using rape as a tool of war, things like that.
Some days I wonder how much less upset my more sheltered students would be if more churches and other institutions taught about good and evil, and more people helped their children understand that there are mean people in the world, some who choose evil and act on that choice. Just as there are people who think they are well meaning, and who are willing to use horrible methods to achieve what they think is a greater good. If that were taught elsewhere, my students wouldn’t be as shocked, I suspect, but there are always going to be people who do not want to believe that evil exists, and others who strive to keep their children as innocent as possible for as long as possible.
Sarah Hoyt and others have pointed out that we can’t child-proof the world, no matter how hard we try. We have to world-proof children as best we can at the age they are, and teach them how to survive when not-nice things happen. And how to avoid not-nice people. Later on, they need to learn how to recognize not-nice ideas.
I shouldn’t be the one teaching kids about evil. The horrors of the Twentieth Century should not be their first introduction to the fact that people can be mean to each other in ways that go far beyond the playground and lunchroom. But sometimes I am, and I have to balance reality and their immaturity. The world is beautiful, wonder-filled, and “very good.” But there are also serpents in the garden, and very dark chapters in the human story. I don’t know if I’ll ever find the perfect balance, but I’ll keep on trying.