Teaching Psychohistory in London

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Ruth Dale Meyer, Pacifica Graduate Institute

 In April 1998 I embarked on my first experience of teaching psychohistory with my class of freshmen high school history students in London, England.  Together we embarked on a two-month period of intensive investigation into the Holocaust.  This article will examine my motivation, teaching methodology, and the outcome of one of the most exciting periods of my twenty-year career teaching high school history.  Anyone wishing to obtain more detailed outline of these experiences should contact the Department of Educational Studies at the University of London in England, where you will find my published masters’ dissertation on history in education entitled, Is There a Place for Psychohistory in the Classroom?

Looking back at my decision to bring psychohistory into the classroom, it was my own awakening to the power of the unconscious through recording my dreams and visiting a Jungian analyst every week made me want to examine the unconscious motivational forces in history.  I also think that when we teach we set up a type of psychic field between ourselves and our students and sometimes our students seem to be able to tap into that field.  Privately, I had been reading a combination of psychohistory books and accounts of the Holocaust.  I was trying to understand what made ordinary German soldiers kill innocent Jewish families.  In class, I was teaching the Holocaust from the textbook when students began asking the questions I was trying so hard to figure out myself.

The average high school history textbook offers no clue as to why Adolf Hitler hated the Jews, or why so many Germans followed him with such zeal in his genocidal plans.  Most textbooks aimed at the high school history student in both Great Britain and the United States leave us totally clueless regarding these crucial questions.  The typical approach is to say that Hitler wanted to create a master race of tall, blonde haired blue-eyed Aryans and that he blamed the Jews for all of Germany’s problems.  But I am sure that I am not the only high school history teacher who has had students asking …“But why?”… “How could he?”… “It doesn’t make sense, when he was so dark haired and short himself.”

When we got beyond Hitler’s rise to power and onto the Holocaust and the einzatzgruppen, the questions began again.  “I would have just refused to do it!” said one of my students.  “Yes, why didn’t they all just refuse to carry out Hitler’s orders?” they asked, once more echoing questions that I had been privately asking myself.

In the summer of 1997 I attended a workshop in England for educators teaching the Holocaust.  It was run by the nonprofit organization, Facing History and Ourselves, based in Brookline, Massachusetts.  What I liked about the approach of this organization was firstly that it did not attempt to side step any of the difficult questions my students were asking and secondly that it invited introspection, self-examination and reflection.   Students are invited to look into the historical mirror in search of reflections of themselves.

After taking this course and reading more about psychohistory, I designed a coursework assignment for my students on the Holocaust which contributed about ten percent of their total points towards their General Certificate in Secondary Education examination in Modern European History.  This examination, taken at age sixteen, is roughly equivalent to a slightly simplified version of Advanced Placement in European history, here in the United States.  Students are expected to demonstrate skill in analyzing, evaluating, and interpreting primary source material, and teachers can, if they wish, design their own coursework assignments for students based on the examination standards outlined by the examination boards.  The feedback that I received from the examination board was good, and they accepted my teacher-designed assignment.  So even though the British education system is very government regulated, there is a place where teachers can bring psychohistorical approaches into their teaching.

The single most influential piece that I read in terms of helping me design my teaching unit on the Holocaust was written by Professor Paul Elovitz.  Within the context of the Holocaust, Elovitz says that the psychological concepts he finds most useful are the mechanisms of defense.  Elovitz suggests that concepts such as denial, projection, rationalization and repression are fairly easy concepts for our students to understand and examples can be used from every day life to illustrate them (“The Holocaust in the Classroom,” Historical and Psychological Inquiry [NY: International Psychohistorical Association, 1990]).  This gave me a confidence to proceed in designing a course work assignment based on Nazi perpetrator testimony which would reveal the defense mechanisms at work.

I set about selecting documents from the Nazi period revealing different defense mechanisms in action.  The Facing History and Ourselves Resource Book contains a wealth of sources for the Holocaust educator.  The journalist Gitta Sereney’s Into the Darkness (London: Pimlico, 1974), based on her interview of a former commandant of Treblinka, was incredibly useful in providing examples of all of the defense mechanisms at work.  Another valuable source, still available from Amazon.com, is Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, & Volker Riess The Good Old Days: Those Were the Days of the Holocaust As Seen by the Perpetrators and Bystanders (London: Hamish, Hamilton, 1988).

My teaching strategy was as follows.  First I encouraged my students to look at their textbooks and see what explanations they offered as to why the Holocaust happened.  They identified causes such as anti-Semitism and Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews for Germany’s problems.  I then asked them to consider how far these surface reasons really answered their questions concerning Hitler’s motivation and carrying out Hitler’s orders. We were able to observe that there was a gap in our knowledge.  Finally I drew a diagram on the board in the shape of an island floating on the ocean.  On the surface of the island were all of our “surface explanations” for the Holocaust.  Underneath the island were the things that we were not yet aware of: the unconscious motivations.  I explained that like them psychohistory is always asking the question why:  underneath the surface explanations we offer ourselves to explain difficult history, there lay other factors such as defense mechanisms.

I found in the course of my teaching that my intuition in following Elovitz’ (1990) advice  concerning defense mechanisms was right.  They were easy to explain.  To explain denial for example, I surprised myself by talking to my students about the death of my father.   I told them how I’d rushed back to England from Spain, upon hearing of his death and how I was overcome with grief when he wasn’t there to meet me at the station.  How my relatives all tried to quiet me down when I wanted to scream and rage because I was so angry at his death, and how they succeeded because I only cried for about half an hour and then threw myself into funeral preparations.  “Burying yourself in details like the order of the funeral service, and the food for the wake,” I told them, “Is denial at work.  Do you do that when you would rather forget something unpleasant?” I asked them.   “Throw yourselves into something else?  Or perhaps you project your anger onto someone else and pick a fight?”   Was Hitler in denial of his possible Jewish ancestors?  Was he projecting his self-hatred onto the Jews?

Perhaps in the course of discussing the defense mechanisms at work I revealed more of myself to my students than I’d intended, but surprisingly I discovered that a lot of them had encountered similar reactions around denial and death.  Opening myself up a little with them brought us closer as a group that year.
Finally students worked through documents of perpetrator testimony in small discussion groups, asking each other which explanations seemed to fit best.  After they had written their answers up, I asked them to give me some feedback on what they felt they had learned from studying history in this way.
One student wrote about how studying psychohistory helped her to understand the human motivations of the Nazi perpetrators.  She wrote, “Before I studied the Holocaust this way, I just thought the Nazi perpetrators were pure evil; like a sort of race apart; not human.  But now I realize that these were just normal people, confronted with extreme circumstances. This,” she continues, “leads me to believe the study of the Holocaust in depth is very important so we can root out its causes and prevent anything like it from happening again.  This study also changed my whole perception of history.  I now realize that history is about people, not facts and figures.”

A second student wrote in a similar vein about how the exercise helped her to view the Nazi perpetrators as ordinary humans, not as a race apart.  She stated that “I’ve learned an awful lot from studying the Holocaust and the reasons how and why behind it.  Not only have I learned how this massive ‘crime’ could happen, I have also learned how an ordinary man could commit such terrible ‘crimes,’ how he could have been my father who went to mass rallies and my mother who loved Hitler, and that I could have been involved with the mass genocide of Jews.”  She goes on to say “that it has taught me as a person that to feel superior is very dangerous and to constantly question ‘Why do I believe this,’ ‘What do I gain?’ and ‘How does it hurt others?’[and that] on a more academic level, I feel I’ve learned a bit about defense mechanisms such a projection, repression and rationalization and even though I’ve only touched on these subjects, it’s made me very interested in this subject, and I would like to study it further.”

A third student commented on her increased understanding not just of history, but also ofherself when she wrote, “I feel that this topic has not only widened my understanding of the Holocaust and human nature, but it has widened my understanding of myself and what I would do when in a similar situation.  This has been a very valuable learning curve.  I feel that this is something I would like to continue, studying this way of history into university.

The conclusion to my MA dissertation should not come as a surprise.  After asking the question, “Is There a Place for Psychohistory in the Classroom?”  I concluded with a resounding “Yes!”  Even though the British education system is very tightly controlled by the government, I demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to have a teaching assignment inspired by psychohistory approved by the government appointed examination boards.  Furthermore, the whole experience of delving deeper into history through combining class discussion with carefully selected primary source materials and some basic teaching about defense mechanisms provided the students and their teacher alike with a much deeper experience of historical enquiry than is usually the case.

Ruth Dale Meyer, PhD, earned her doctoral degree in 2005 from Pacifica Graduate Institute.  She teaches world history in a college preparatory school in San Jose, California.

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