After seven months in India, I think I have become pretty accustomed to the wide range of conversations I have on a daily basis with friends, colleagues, and strangers. I smile as I explain to people where I am from and what I am doing here, I smile as I’m told I am starting to look “healthy” from eating so much Indian food, and I smile widely as people around me discuss my “regularity.” But even after all this time, I continue to be utterly surprised and confused by conversations I have with young Indian adults about Hitler. Many believe he was a great leader. He unified the country. He inspired the youth. Never do people mention he inspired millions of deaths.
I grew up in America – Hitler was an evil man. I grew up in a Jewish family – Hitler was the worst person who ever lived. As my friends explain to me that they grew up in India, that the Holocaust is not their history, I find it hard to make the jump that growing up in India makes this a different story, makes Hitler a different man. I believe context is important, but to me there is no context in which this part of history looks any different.
I have felt really fortunate to be working for the Akanksha Foundation. I think we are doing really impressive and difficult work to model effective changes to classrooms and schools that can be adopted system-wide. Within our own schools, we have been working all year to redesign our kindergarten through tenth standard curriculum to better support our students in getting them to where we want them to be by the time they graduate. Over the last several weeks, I have started working more on redesigning our English language curriculum for the sixth through eighth grade. For the seventh grade in particular, I have been tasked with looking for resources on a unit focused on leadership. As the team brainstormed leaders to use as a method to study different styles of leadership, Hitler was quickly mentioned as an option.
Talking about Hitler within Akanksha does not make me nervous. One of our schools has developed a unit on violence within and outside of India, and it very consciously focuses on the Holocaust. One of our morning enrichment centers just completed a unit focused on discrimination that also very consciously focused on the Holocaust and Hitler as a leader (and ended with a group of students performing a great rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”). For this seventh grade English unit we are creating, Akanksha teachers and principals immediately came up with framing questions like: What makes a good leader? Are there heroes and villains? How are leaders represented?
I felt relieved. I felt like I was in good company. I felt excited that our curriculum was developing into something so amazing. There is something so refreshing about “these kids” (poor, from slums, with uneducated parents – and often actually referred to as “those kids” in conversations I’ve had with non-Akanksha educators), OUR KIDS gaining a perspective that their more privileged counterparts often do not. Our students will be gaining a real advantage. I felt proud to be part of the Akanksha team.
The curriculum work we are doing isn’t going to result in me feeling less physically upset each time I walk by a Crossword bookstore and see Mein Kampf displayed in the window with pride, but it will make our Akanksha students stop and think about why it is there and what that means in the Indian context. That’s a pretty good start.