The Problems with Spiegelman’s MAUS:
Why MAUS Should Not Be Taught in High Schools
or Elementary Schools
Part # 4. Students’ level of understanding is inadequate and some students are being subjected to psychological harm.
Art Spiegelman is a popular cartoonist at the New Yorker magazine and as such enjoys a celebrity status. He is immune to criticism because, as a cartoonist, he does, and should, enjoy freedom of expression. He also courts controversy. That is his right, but at the expense of vulnerable school children? This is an issue that must be addressed and discussed. The popularity of a cartoonist or a topic cannot be more important than the education of students, including the impact of emotional abuse on one segment of the student body.
The issue here is one of education, of influencing young minds, and of serious injury to a segment of the student population. It is difficult to understand why educators would choose material without considering the emotional damage to young people forced to sit through classes while they are humiliated, who find it difficult to find their voices, and who sit in silence wishing they were somewhere else, hoping nobody is looking at them. We know this, because they have spoken to us about it. It is a difficult thing for young people to speak out when they feel they are the object of ridicule and contempt.
We should also be aware that these are children whose grandparents may have been inmates of Nazi German concentration camps, whose family members may have been tortured and executed, forced to work as slave labourers, and subjected to medical experiments. Few people are aware that ninety percent of the Christian clergy murdered in Dachau were Poles, and that of all the Catholic clergy in occupied Europe only Polish priests were used for medical experimentation. Or that only Polish women were subjected to medical experiments in Ravensbrück. Portraying the Poles as a nation of pigs is offensive to all. It constitutes a most gratuitous injury to the memory of three million Polish Christians who were killed by Nazi Germany.
We are well aware that MAUS is a very popular book, but we submit that popularity is never a sound basis for critical judgment. Just because a book has won awards and praise from reviewers does not mean that it is suitable for use in schools. One of the inherent problems in studying history in an English class is that it is unlikely that the teachers will have sufficient historical knowledge about complex topics like the Holocaust. Moreover, there is almost no likelihood that they would know or teach “the Polish story.” This is especially so where teachers are ill equipped to deal with problematic aspects of the book, and the resource materials are silent on those matters. There are many literary books that deal with the Holocaust, though not in the same popular vein as MAUS. Since there is a choice of texts that may be used to teach the topic of the Holocaust, it would be prudent to choose a book which is respectful of all the victims of Nazi oppression.
MAUS does not convey respect for the Polish victims of Nazi German oppression. In fact, it does just the opposite, and that is reflected in the attitude displayed by some of the students toward the students of Polish background. Prior to the study of MAUS the students likely had no particular opinion about the Poles or their history. One cannot get away from the fact that when Poles are presented as pigs, and many of the characters are fascist pigs, it is difficult to feel any kind of respect for them.
One cannot assume that because the book is taught in senior high school grades, students are by definition capable of understanding the book and of dealing with the content studied. Such an assumption is false: even the best students (at any level) may have difficulties with the material, particularly if the material is controversial, offensive or divisive, when it relates to complex and contentious historical or social issues, and when such material is taught without proper critical tools. The fact that other (non-Polish) students did not find anything objectionable in the book only proves that they were not taught well enough.
In the case of one Toronto high school that has been examined very closely, the teaching of MAUS proved to be highly divisive. The parents of students of Polish background arrived at the sad and painful conclusion that even students in a grade 11 IB program were not mature enough to deal with the materials critically. The students did not have sufficient knowledge of the events in question and, therefore, the ability to make required judgments about the merits of the book. They simply assumed that MAUS is historically accurate. Some of the Polish students wanted to voice their opinions but feared being singled out either by their teacher or by their non-Polish classmates. They wanted to do something but they did not know what to do. All of this caused them much distress. The study of MAUS divided the students in the class into opposing “sides.” The non-Polish students now believed that the
Poles were responsible for killing the Jews (remarks like “you Poles killed the Jews”
were made by some students). Some of non-Polish students taunted the Polish students with "Oink, oink, piggies," when passing them in the corridors. MAUS spoiled the friendly relationship the students previously enjoyed.
It is astounding that teachers cannot see the psychological injury that Spiegelman’s
disgusting imagery can inflict, nor have any empathy for the young people in their care who are subjected to it. The concern about the mental and emotional health of part of the student body is very real. It cannot be stressed enough that this matter requires serious attention. The purpose of choosing a book about the Holocaust is to advance knowledge and understanding of an important topic, not to skew it or cause distress and division among the students.
RESEARCH AND STUDIES
(Recommended by Polish Greatness.com)
The following are just a few of the exceptional resources I found online. I invite students and teachers to visit these sites to better understand the history of the Holocaust. There are many universities worldwide, in addition to the few I have mentioned below, which have a Holocaust Center and/or offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in the study of the Holocaust. I encourage you to browse these websites, read them and share them with your colleagues. (please click on the following links)
International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance
Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research in Poland
Yad Vashem The Holocaust: The Outbreak of WWII and Anti-Jewish Policy
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Mosaic of Victims: An Overview
Shoah Foundation - University of South Carolina
(Foundation was founded by Director Stephen Spielberg)
Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
(the first Institute of its kind - Clark University
Center for Holocaust Studies
University of Vermont
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies
University of Minnesota
Polish Center for Holocaust Research
Holocaust Resource Center
(training educators and teachers about the Holocaust)
Holocaust and Genocide Studies
(about non-Jewish victims of Holocaust)
Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Berkenau
Study of the Holocaust requires a solid basis of knowledge about World War II. As in all advanced courses, one cannot begin to study the Holocaust without first acquiring the necessary prerequisite. I encourage you to read extensively about WWII, but I must warn you to avoid any publications, or internet sites that are laden with propaganda, such as sweeping generalizations and vitriol targeting specific ethnic groups.
(please click on above link)