In my teaching, I prepare undergraduate students to become high school history teachers. In one course, teacher candidates prepare and deliver mock lessons. Their peers play the role of high school students, and I observe and give feedback following these practice lessons. Whether coincidence or a reflection of the times, this fall a good number of mock lessons covered the rise of totalitarianism. In one excellent lesson, a teacher candidate had his students examine the contexts that gave rise to totalitarianism. He accompanied this lesson with an excerpt from a world history textbook listing characteristics of totalitarianism.
This lesson hit on the true purpose for including totalitarianism in high school curricula. That purpose is not to honor the likes of Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini. Nor is that purpose to provide the methods of totalitarianism as an instructional manual to follow. Rather, the purpose of teaching on totalitarianism is to deliver a warning: heed well the conditions that yielded totalitarianism, so you can recognize and avoid them. As I observed this teacher candidate’s lesson, I could not help but think about that purpose in the context of our present time.
One passage from the lesson’s textbook concerned me the most: “Totalitarian leaders often create ‘enemies of the state’ to blame for things that go wrong. Frequently these enemies are members of religious or ethnic groups. Often these groups are easily identified and are subjected to campaigns of terror and violence. They may be forced to live in certain areas or are subjected to rules that apply only to them” (pg. 876).
Creating an enemy of the state requires othering: a process of dehumanizing through marginalizing a group of humans as something different, less than, and other. Such othered groups become an easy target to scapegoat, unfairly bearing the blame for a society’s ills.
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