Viewing 2016 election as a teachable moment

By Zuha Mutan

Lauren Geschel was disheartened in 2004, when people she knew said they didn’t care about voting in the presidential election because they didn’t think George Bush would be reelected.

Twelve years later, she noticed similar behavior as the country prepared to elect Donald Trump. So Geschel, an English teacher and debate coach at William W. Bodine High School for International Affairs, sought to prevent apathy by tying history into her literature lessons to teach her students about history repeating itself.

Geschel used this concept in a daring way: to point out the correlations between Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Republican presidential candidate and eventual 45th president of the United States Donald Trump. The goal was to get her students to learn to think critically and relate the past, present, and future for the better.

“I think my whole point with all of this is not about politics. This is about specific historical incidents that are so similar that it’s unbelievable and uncanny how much you can learn from them,” Geschel said.

Overall, she wants her students to be able to take pieces of literature and connect them to the real world to be able to understand human nature and the psychology behind how humans act.

After her junior English class read the graphic novels, Maus: A Survivor’s Story, and Maus: My Father Bleeds History, for example, Geschel pointed out key similarities between Hitler and Trump, including the language that both Trump and Hitler used. Geschel says both men tapped into the minds of the disenfranchised by giving them hope.

In the Washington Post, Peter Ross Range, the author of 1924: The Year That Made Hitler, agreed.

“No resemblance has been stronger than Trump’s claim that he ‘alone’ could rescue America from its misery. Hitler famously conjured the model of ‘the genius, the great man’ who alone held the key to a country’s destiny. Calling democracy ‘a joke,’ Hitler fiercely disdained what he called ‘weak majorities.’ ”

During class discussions, Geschel pointed out that both Hitler and Trump identified a problem, a group to blame, and a solution to a situation. Hitler blamed global problems on the Jews and he believed everything would be solved if he exterminated them. Trump blames Muslims for terrorist attacks and initially tried to ban immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries and is considering requiring Muslim U.S. citizens to register.

Although both had different intentions, both used the tactic of fear in their rhetoric, Geschel said.

“I just think the more educated we become, the more you understand what’s happening, the more you can fight tyrannical stuff like that happening,” Geschel said.

Although she described herself as a liberal, Geschel clarified that her lessons are by no means done on a political platform. For her, it’s more about learning from history.

Hitler did not commit a mass genocide in a matter of days. He began by revoking Jewish businesses and sending them to concentration camps before he sent them to gas chambers.

Trump is beginning his campaign signing executive orders and targeting certain groups of people. Based on the similarities between the two, Geschel expects things to get worse for these groups of people as time passes with Trump in office.

“You don’t have a Holocaust overnight. You don’t deport 15 million people in one night,” Geschel said. “They’re starting with small things and I think a lot of people are going to kind of overlook that and say, ‘Well, it’s all right. Things will get better.’”

But not everyone agrees with Geschel’s assessment.

“I don’t like anybody being compared to Adolf Hitler,” Bob Geminder, 80, of Palos Verdes, Calif., told the Jewish Journal in November. “There is no one, no one in the world who has ever been — and hopefully never will be — that one can compare to Adolf Hitler.”

David Wiener, 90, said “give me a break” when the Jewish Journal asked him about the comparison.

“This topic is an insult to people,” he said. “No comparison. We have a Congress here. We have a Senate. We have a Supreme Court.”

Makiyah Graham is a student in Lauren Geschel’s class. Photo by Zuha Mutan.

Makiyah Graham, a student in Geschel’s class, believes these classroom discussions have impacted her as a citizen in making her more interested in politics and keeping up with current events.

“History is important,” Graham said, “therefore if there’s a leader, in this case our country’s president, who seems to be following the actions of a former dictator and killed over six million people, then it is important for any group of people to be aware.”

Growing up, Geschel was not into history because she had to memorize dates. She strongly favors historical concepts being tied into the author’s purpose of pieces of literature and current events.

“That’s how history should be taught,” Geschel said. “We should be taught what connections do they have — and you need to make those connections, someone needs to make those connections for you so then you can go, ‘Oh that makes sense.’ And I think this is one of those connections.”

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