New history lessons adopted by the California Board of Education this year may especially resonate with Fresno students and families. Schools are now required to teach about the Armenian genocide – an important history in the Fresno area, which has a large Armenian American community.
The state’s revised history and social science framework – which also includes new content on the history of LGBT people and expanded teachings of Latino history – adds key facts relating to the Armenian genocide and its causes, and asks teachers to link it to the Holocaust. Teachers also are to provide information on the “unprecedented American humanitarian response” to the genocide: relief efforts raised more than $117 million in the aftermath, saving more than 1 million refugees.
The new content, which is more inclusive and aims to teach students to think critically about historical events, is expected to show up in textbooks by 2018.
The Armenian genocide was the Ottoman Turkish government’s extermination of 1.5 million Armenians that started in 1915, during World War I. The genocide came as the Ottoman Empire was declining and its Islamic leaders saw the Christian Armenians as a threat.
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1.5 millionpeople killed in the Armenian genocide
Turkish authorities first arrested hundreds of Armenian intellectuals who eventually were killed. “The remaining Armenians were ordered onto death marches into the Syrian desert, during which they were subjected to rape, torture, mutilation, starvation, holocausts in desert caves, kidnapping and forced Turkification and Islamization,” reads the curriculum framework for California’s 10th-graders.
Ultimately, the Armenian population was reduced by 75 percent. But unlike the Holocaust, the history of the Armenian genocide was overlooked, with leaders of Turkey still refusing to label what happened as genocide after years of denying that it happened at all. While the U.S. government has condemned the killings, no U.S. president has ever actually used the word “genocide” in any commemoration ceremony.
In addition to California, only 10 states are required to teach about the Armenian genocide, according to the Genocide Education Project.
“The Armenian genocide has been ignored in history textbooks,” said Barlow Der Mugrdechian, director of Fresno State’s Center for Armenian Studies. “I know several local teachers who have already been providing materials on it, but it’s absolutely essential for all teachers. It brings to light an example of how government can choose to go down a path toward genocide and what conditions allow that to happen.”
Der Mugrdechian pointed to Adolf Hitler’s quote before invading Poland, in which he asked who remembered the annihilation of the Armenians – leading many to believe that it encouraged him to proceed with plans to kill millions of Jews.
That alone “is a clear statement about the necessity to remember history,” Mugrdechian said.
The Armenian genocide has often been ignored in history textbooks.
Barlow Der Mugrdechian, Fresno State’s Center for Armenian Studies
The genocide hasn’t been forgotten in Fresno, where many Armenian refugees settled years ago. In 2015, Fresno State erected a monument dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide. Fresno’s Armenian Genocide Commemorative Committee works to spread awareness of the genocide and remember the victims each year.
“Though widely reported in the international press at the time, the Armenian Genocide is largely a forgotten tragedy today,” the committee’s website says. “Much like Native Americans, African Americans, and other politically disenfranchised peoples of the United States, Armenians have sought to educate and raise awareness about the genocide at the local, national and international level as their primary means to find justice.”
Eileen Ohanian, who serves on the committee, was traveling to schools to talk about the genocide before the new guidelines were passed this summer. A retired Fresno Unified teacher who is Armenian, Ohanian said the genocide was not something that was taught in her 30 years in the district.
“Nobody taught it. We said, ‘You know what, let’s do something. Let’s see if we can get in the schools and change things around a little bit,’ ” she said. “We encompass genocide in general – not just the Armenians. We get students to see the worldwide aftershock. What’s going on today as we live in our modern, comfortable world, there are genocides being perpetuated all over.”
If we don’t raise the consciousness of our youth today, it’s just going to happen again.
Eileen Ohanian, Armenian Genocide Commemorative Committee
Ohanian said that while last year’s centennial of the genocide was a big moment to remember, she doesn’t want it to stop there. She also says that just because the state now requires teaching about the genocide, it doesn’t mean her work in schools is done.
“We don’t want this to die. We want it to be in perpetuity. So as long as we can do it, we’ll do it,” she said. “If we don’t raise the consciousness of our youth today, it’s just going to happen again.”
Fresno Unified school board member Brooke Ashjian’s great-grandmother survived the Armenian genocide. He says contributions made by Armenian Americans have shaped the city and beyond, pointing to famous writer and Fresno native William Saroyan.
“It’s a valuable lesson because it’s something you don’t want to repeat,” Ashjian said of the Armenian genocide. “Armenian people are resilient.”