Teaching About Evil

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.


36 thoughts on “Teaching About Evil

    • Firefighters and doctors can save lives. But good education has the power to save souls.

  1. The opening and end frame story of =The Secret of Father Brown= might help. And a little more Chesterton:

    “What though they come with scroll and pen,
    And grave as a shaven clerk,
    By this sign you shall know them,
    That they ruin and make dark;

    “By all men bond to Nothing,
    Being slaves without a lord,
    By one blind idiot world obeyed,
    Too blind to be abhorred;

    “By terror and the cruel tales
    Of curse in bone and kin,
    By weird and weakness winning,
    Accursed from the beginning,
    By detail of the sinning,
    And denial of the sin;

    “By thought a crawling ruin,
    By life a leaping mire,
    By a broken heart in the breast of the world,
    And the end of the world’s desire;”

    Tolkien was unimpressed by =The Ballad of the White Horse= but the section to which these verses belong is some of his finest work, and the whole thing is studded with glittering gems.

    • Any time a scholar examines a work that touches on his own special subject, he’s gonna have some problems with it.

      But… Chesterton also did not share the same aesthetics as Tolkien, in a lot of his poetry. Tolkien had a fairly stark taste in verse, which was why he didn’t like much medieval Irish poetry. If he did a close reading of “Ballad of the White Horse” as an adult (which is what he was doing with his daughter Priscilla when he wrote his letter’s comments on “Ballad”), he would see a lot of its flaws as narrative with a plot (and the history of English narrative was also one of his special subjects), and as history.

      BUT… Tolkien had apparently enjoyed it when he was younger, and Chesterton does have enough joie de vivre and energy to make even weak plots work.

      The amusing thing is that Gerard Manley Hopkins is almost the apotheosis of everything that Tolkien didn’t like in Irish poetry, but there’s a decent amount of evidence that Tolkien did like Hopkins and studied his life and letters. But again, Hopkins tends to carry all else before him, and Tolkien likely felt some kinship to another English Catholic writer.

  2. Most kids find out that evil exists in middle school. That’s what middle school is for, I believe. To separate out the most wicked years of childhood from the rest of the educational system.

  3. That’s an excellent topic for making integrated curriculum, in terms of moral philosophy, and not the usual mechanics of parsing out assignment parts: Good, Evil, temptation and salvation.

    Good does not mean Nice, which is forgotten or ignored by too many people. Good can include making a horrible example of Evil. Elijah’s work as a prophet of the Lord comes to mind, beginning with closing the heavens (drought) for three years to bring Judea and Israel to their senses.

    • “So, you don’t need God, because you’ve got all these nice Canaanite gods now?

      “Okay… let’s see them make it rain. Or make things catch fire. Either way.”

  4. Thank you for doing this. I think a lot of what’s wrong in America today can be summed up in, the schools I was in “didn’t have time” to teach anything beyond the barest sketch of WWII. Later events were barely touched on at all, much less the depths of evil that happened.

    I knew evil existed because of personal experience. Thankfully I had Sherlock Holmes and a biography of Patton to try and place it in some kind of context. I can imagine a lot of people not being so lucky.

    • Some schools have now separated American history into a two year class. I think this is reasonable, because a lot has happened around here. And really, after the Civil War, there was tons of change.

      • That’s the AP curriculum, as well as college. You get “Columbus to Reconstruction” and “Reconstruction to as far as we get this year.”

  5. I have run into that same shock in my students (college), in my introduction to comparative politics class or as it was called, Foreign Governments & Politics. They learn that the Holocaust was just one genocide among many, they learn that what they take for granted living in this country does not apply to other governments, and to their great dismay, they learn that people simply cannot “just change their government”.

    I raise my glass to your continuing efforts in that directions. I have left the field and will not be returning. Godspeed to you.

    • It’s too easy for us to assume that civilization is the ground state(*) which we must rise above. It’s so far above that ground state that the distance is almost incomprehensible.

      I wonder: Ray Bradbury created atmospheres of evil and -menace- in his works. I don’t usually read one of them twice. Could that be useful in some way in teaching about the reality and the base callousness of evil? Or of some forms of it?

  6. Ah. I took the first step towards teaching my daughter that evil does exist, and that people can be deluded into doing evil when she was just coming up to five years old. That was the year that I transferred between Greece and Spain, and took the opportunity of taking a long vacation during it. Took the car ferry from Patras to Brindisi, and drove up through Italy, over the Brenner Pass and wandered through Germany, France and into Spain.
    I took her to see what’s left of the Dachau concentration camp, just outside Munich. Didn’t sugar-coat any of it, we walked through the little museum, and through the replica barracks. Looked at the walls and towers around it, the memorial tablets around the crematorium. To this day, she remembers that visit, and how unnaturally quiet the place seemed. No bird or insect sounds. Just the eerie quiet, as if the earth and air remembered the horror.

    • I took students to Auschwitz. They had been in my classes, so they had an intellectual idea of what to expect. They were truly horrified. The evil oozes from the ground there and they felt it. This was in January so it was grey, cold, and muddy. Simply eerie.

  7. Accepting that evil exists means accepting that “Ye shall be as God” is an evil lie.
    It’s much more gratifying to pretend that your ancestors never ate of the tree.

  8. …since the serpent sidled up to Eve and said, “Hey, can I interest you in some fresh produce? Organic, lots of [antioxidants], locally sourced!”

    I was Very Carefully NOT drinking anything as I read that.
    Good thing, too!

  9. My dad was a history teacher, so I never had a lack of exposure to evil in history.

    OTOH, there’s a bad tendency in some history books to bypass the evil. Like in the famous passage in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time? Inspector Grant has spent the whole book going against the Tudor version of history, where Richard III supposedly did all these horrible things, like killing off claimants to the throne. And then, he encounters a historian saying approvingly that the Tudor kings killed off all the other claimants to the throne, yay!

    Obviously one wishes to avoid openly approving of judicial murder. No matter how convenient.

    • Of course, the big one with history books in the English-speaking world is usually Queen Elizabeth I. There are an amazing number of books for kids that glorify Elizabeth I without mentioning, “Oh, yeah, not only did she continue Henry VIII’s policies against Catholics, but she also employed a serial killer with a murder house.”

      I used to think Kipling was awfully hard on Elizabeth in his Puck of Pook’s HIll books, but actually he did well to imply that There Is A Problem With Her, without making definite proclamations in a touchy religious and political area.

      It’s okay to talk about the good things a historical figure did, and to balance them out with the bad things. Or vice versa.

      • Of course, the big one with history books in the English-speaking world is usually Queen Elizabeth I. There are an amazing number of books for kids that glorify Elizabeth I without mentioning, “Oh, yeah, not only did she continue Henry VIII’s policies against Catholics, but she also employed a serial killer with a murder house.”

        And I thought that Catherine the Great was a touchy subject to deal with… 0.o
        Thank goodness my husband is the one doing non-hands-on history with the kids!

        (We do a lot of “remember they’re humans” type lessons, so the kids aren’t going to be destroyed that a hyped up character they saw in an edutainment cartoon and want to learn more about is..uh…flawed, but since my dad’s family is/was roughly the church she was supporting, and we’re Catholic, that would be even harder than explaining Catherine’s, uh, diplomatic methods.)

  10. I have to wonder: of the folks reading this, how many of us had our first encounter with “evil” in the pages of a fiction book? I know I did. When I started reading about WW2 and first read about the Holocaust a couple of years later, I remember being aghast at the scale of it, but not that humans could be capable of such a thing. After all, I’d already met (metaphorically speaking) humans, and other sapient beings, who were capable of such things.

    Many people have observed that today’s kids just don’t read very much, either fiction or nonfiction. Is this lack of knowledge of “evil” perhaps a consequence of that?

    • I don’t remember my first encounter with evil– but I have had the concept since before I can remember, my folks would talk about “two legged predators.”

      Even now, I will sometimes identify those sorts because, I swear to heaven, they move like human coyotes– when they don’t move like a wolf about to go in for the back leg. (From your name, you’ve probably watched at least as many videos as I have– so you’ve seen it, hopefully you can envision it inspite of my attempts to convey it.)

      One thing that I have noticed in a lot of the “for kids” stuff is that they do not allow things to be evil. There’s only good, and misunderstood, and occasionally something that isn’t wrong but is like “doesn’t do what the good wants.”

      Evil requires a moral judgement. A standard.

      I think that’s part of the popularity of “chaos vs order”, and the occasion with making “order” be idiots or have a Mandatory Jerk requirement. It lets you have conflict without morality.

      • Modern “for kids” stuff is like that. Look back a few years, though, and some characters in “for kids” TV shows, movies, and stories were as evil as anything in “grown-up” fiction. Smaug the dragon is the first example that comes to mind. See also the Lone Power in Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” stories, or Venger the “dark lord” in the 1980s D&D cartoon.

        • Gargoyles did well, X-Men did fairly well, the 90s Batman and Superman that melted into Justice LEague and JLU did well– there are gems you can find.

          Anime is doing very well on the whole “evil is actually EVIL, and good isn’t stupid or a-hole to be cool” thing. My Hero Academia even has a very nicely wide selection of personalities in the good guys.

          • Yes, Gargoyles is an excellent example. The others not so much IMHO, since “battling against ultimate evil” is something I kind of expect from American-type superheroes, and the “nobody ever really dies” thing keeps it from seeming too serious.

            Anime is an interesting example since it’s primarily Japanese, and reflects Japanese cultural mores much more than American. It’s also interesting to look at European animation, if you can find any. I call to mind an Italian(?) series from about ten years ago called “Huntik: Secrets and Seekers”. Its bad guys were very bad indeed.

            • If you have a lot of time to burn, go back and watch them again– I was shocked at how much complexity I didn’t remember. Death in the first three episodes for X-Men, although that show is the weakest of the examples— and they found stuff to gain or lose besides your life in the DC series.

              Sure, anime reflects Japanese cultural mores more than American– but we’re comparing it to actively attempting to re-write American cultural mores, so even with that hurdle, there are many examples that pass.

              My kids rather like “Mia and Me”, it’s a mix live action real world/fairy world is CGI from Italy. It’s pretty insipid, but there are fairies, unicorns and it’s not ACTIVELY malicious, so the DVD a grandma sent didn’t mysteriously get lost, and they can stream it.

        • As best I can tell, it got started in the 60s or so as a form of being “nice.” You can find strains of it in other fiction that’s older, I know that both Father Brown and Peter Whimsy pushed against it in their own ways.

          It’s just overwhelming now, because they can get rid of stuff that takes a risk of being “offensive.”

  11. raises hand in answer to wolfwalker. Me, for pretty sure. And I think it was a picture book, Dr. Seuss, King’s Stilts. I wouldn’t have known to name it evil, but what the villain does is evil. For some reason I remembered that book for years and years without the title.

    • I grew up with the Coloured Fairy Books (Andrew Lang) and the unexpurgated Grim’s Fairy Tales. There’s a lot of good and evil there. Toss in the Child Ballads and other folk-ballads, and you get a really good taste of right, wrong, and evil.

        • Forget who said it (but C. S. Lewis mentioned it), but I read the following “Fairy Tales don’t just teach children monsters exist. They tell children that monsters can be defeated.”

          • Found it.

            “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

            ― G.K. Chesterton

            • Lewis loved Chesterton and drew freely on his work, so Lewis probably said it too.

              And there’s something similar in Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.”

            • I suspect Lewis would have quoted Chesterton and I suspect that Tolkien would have done the same.

              Both would IMO expand on Chesterton statement but would have given Chesterton his “due”.

      • Oh yes, there’s LOTS of evil in fairy tales — and believe it or not, some of the Lang versions were considerably toned down. There’s evil of another sort in the tales of Robin Hood — especially the traditional tale of how Robin became an outlaw. “Entrapment,” anyone?

  12. 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.

    We’re working on it.

    So far, we have three levels of “bad stuff.”
    Animal bad stuff– stuff that hurts you, but isn’t on purpose.
    Just Wrong bad stuff– this includes “they mean well” and “they think the cost is worth the pay-off”/”ends justify the means.”
    Malicious bad stuff– they know it will hurt you, and that is the point. They want the bad result.

    Also working on the idea of charity and not assuming malice when wrong will cover it, and of course accidents… but our kids not only have exposure to the idea of evil, they have exposure to the idea that they could do evil, and that it’s something you work against in yourself just as hard as in others.
    Those kids that Sarah talked about, who destroyed that sandcastle– we work hard to make sure that seed of evil doesn’t grow in our kids. Pray we succeed.

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