about the course
Facing History is quite probably not like many of the courses Boston Latin juniors and seniors have taken already--or will take—in their remaining time at the school.
What we do in Facing History is to look at history, certainly, but we do it with eyes and ears constantly on alert for connections to what’s going on now. And frankly, assuming that you are already literate and numerate, becoming an engaged citizen who thinks and acts in relation to current news and issues—locally, nationally, and internationally--is critical to your future as an adult in this society.
“Facing” is a course that focuses on some of the least attractive and often horrifying moments in history of the past 125 or so years. At times we have to reach back further in history. Here is a look at its scope and sequence.
The course has been often described as only a study of the many genocides that have scarred the past century. In reality, Facing History is a course on identity and marginalization: how people have separated themselves from, discriminated against, and developed hatreds toward other peoples. We repeatedly consider prejudice, ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds, escalating into violence, war, and genocide. We look at human rights and the denial of human rights in so many societies in this world. Sadly, we could make an endless list of episodes of this in the 20th and 21st century and never get to more than a fraction of them over the course of the school year.
Marginalization has occurred repeatedly in history and it’s also alive and well today: certainly worldwide, in this country, in this city, in our communities, and—yes--in this school. Folks say that “things have gotten better”--and they certainly have for some--but there’s plenty of marginalization still occurring here and all over the world.
We’ll spend considerable time on the Holocaust, to be sure, because it’s (regrettably) exceptionally well documented. It’s a very useful case study to understand how these different patterns of behavior work. Studying the Holocaust is especially helpful in enabling us to understand the behavior of perpetrators, victims, rescuers and resisters, and most especially bystanders and upstanders at that time, actions that resonate in light of events happening today.
But the Holocaust is—sad to say—far from the only one example of such behaviors escalating to the level of outright violence and genocide. And it is far from the only genocide we will consider.
In this course, we will find that national, ethnic, religious, and racial inequities and enmities in various combinations lead to marginalization and hatred. We will look at these phenomena and try to determine why individuals, groups, and governments continue to marginalize and be marginalized, identify what our government (and other governments) do and how those actions affect civilians. We will make a stab at what might be done about all of this stuff. As we consider these issues, a “given” will be that we are all human, entitled to certain basic and universal human rights. How these rights have been respected in some places and violated in others will be a considerable focus in this year’s class, both in the context of historical events and current ones.
Did you know that for most Boston Latin students alive today, there has not been a day that you have been alive on this planet that war was not raging somewhere? Why is that?
We consider peace and non-violence as a viable and desirable alternative to war and violence throughout the year. Do we as humans have a propensity for war or is it possible to engage in peace? What would it take to live on a non-violent, peaceful planet? Repeatedly we will ask these questions and search for possible answers. The advent of the Topol Fellows, a group of seniors who have all taken Facing History at BLS and seek to teach the school community about these ideas and turn them into action, will strengthen what we do.
Facing History is a course that makes history urgent and immediate in an entirely different manner than many history courses do. We look at history and current events in depth and through the lenses of the people experiencing them. We watch films, listen to recordings, see works of art, interact with monuments and museums, visit places where key events and genocides occurred, look at original artifacts. Most classes are discussion-oriented and much of the work for the class is done on online discussion boards. We’ll hear from several guest speakers; we will often have visitors in class. Students use technology purposefully. Through presentations, projects, and readings, we work together to lead much of the class.
Moreover, students are confronted--just as the participants were during the events we will study--with an array of choices. Deciding how each of us would have behaved under particular circumstances and then reading and interpreting how participants behaved render history and today’s events vivid and complex. We become witnesses in a very real sense. And then we apply those potential choices and options to current events. What can we do about injustices now? Can we prevent history with negative consequences from repeating itself?
As we study this history, you can sit on the sidelines and be disengaged.
Or we can choose to participate in some way in our society’s future, so that events like the ones we will examine do not happen again.
How we participate and what we do is precisely what has been nagging at us this summer.
As a distinguished alumnus from the Boston Latin School class of 1882, George Santayana, in his 1905 The Life of Reason, wrote an oft-quoted statement: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We suspect that you’ve heard that quote before. His quote has morphed into several paraphrased versions but its essence is clear: we have to wrestle with the past in order to ensure that we don’t repeat what happened previously. That’s really what the Facing History course endeavors to do.
We hope students emerge from this experience caring deeply about their roles as individuals and citizens and their power to use their voices to be active—not passive--member of this society. Central to the mission of Boston Latin School is the encouragement and preparation of an active and engaged citizenry. If this course is successful, you will come away with a greater sense of commitment to society and to a future where people participate in the shaping of something positive and good.
Facing History will be a course where students' interest in historical, ethical, and moral issues will be taken seriously. We’ll have an opportunity to wrestle with them throughout the year.
For more about the Seevak Chair in History, the creation of which enabled Boston Latin to offer the Facing History program, scroll down.
Guest speakers, special events and resources available for Boston Latin's Facing History classes
One of the distinguishing features of the Facing History course is the frequency of guest speakers who visit the class. The opportunity to learn directly from activists, witnesses, upstanders, and survivors--folks who can offer a perspective on history that is uniquely theirs--is unparalleled and almost always unforgettable.
As part of the Facing History course, we have hosted school-wide information campaigns on Asian-American History and indigenous history, exhibitions--from one dedicated to the German youth resistance group, The White Rose, and Boston Counter-Culture History, an exploration of Boston's less well known history--and collaborated with other departments at BLS to organize and present performances--from the play God Sleeps in Rwanda to Unveiled. Every year, Facing History students present their final projects--proposals for memorials or monuments to be built around the world--for public exhibition in the school's Seevak room.
Thanks to the generosity of Stephen Feinberg, former director of National Outreach at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Boston Latin School received his massive library of books on Holocaust and genocide history. The collection now lives in the Boston Latin library and ensures that the school has remarkable print resources on this period in history.
The gallery below highlights many of our guest speakers from over the years.
The most frequent guest to the Facing History class is unquestionably Rena Ferber Finder (b. 1929), the youngest survivor to have survived the Holocaust thanks to Schindler's "list." Rena has spoken with students annually since 1998.
Ambassador Samantha Power spoke in 2017 to Facing History students at Boston Latin and tweeted her selfies afterwards. In Facing History, we read her book, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. This was her third talk to Facing History students at the school.
Albie Sachs (b. 1935), South African activist who was detained twice for his anti-apartheid activities and was victim of a car bomb in 1988, losing his right arm and vision in one eye. Sachs was appointed as a judge by Nelson Mandela in 1990 and helped to write the post-apartheid South African constitution. He shared his life story and experiences with Facing History students.
Seevak Chair in History Judi Freeman and Stephen Feinberg on the occasion of his gift to the Boston Latin School library.
Facing History students at a dinner in celebration of the work of Physicians for Human Rights.
Sam Mihara (b. 1933) at age nine was forced with his family in 1942 to leave their home in San Francisco to be incarcerated for three years by the US government in a Japanese-American concentration camp at Heart Mountain in a remote area of Wyoming. Sam focused his discussion with Facing History students on the dangers of fear and xenophobia when weaponized and used by governments to incarcerate people.
Arn Chorn-Pond (b. 1966) survived the Cambodian genocide. Forced into a prison camp with hundreds of other children, Arn played songs on his flute for the Khmer Rouge soldiers and eventually was able to escape into the jungle and finally to Thailand. Not only did he recount his life story for Facing History students but he also brought his flute and shared Cambodian traditional flute music.
Filmmaker Socheata Poeuv's film New Years Baby, a staple in Facing History classes, is her account of a story she knew nothing about as a child, insofar as she was born in a Thai refugee camp: her family's experience as victims an survivors of the Cambodian genocide. Socheata shared her account of uncovering her family's history and making a highly personal film in the process.
Elizabeth Dancing Waters Solomon (Massachusett) is treasurer of the Massachusett Ponkapoag tribe and shared her deep knowledge of the erasure of the Massachusett people in what became Boston as well as surrounding areas. In a powerful session with Facing History students, she described some of the challenges and triumphs of the efforts to gain recognition for the Massachusett peoples.
Attorney Chris Muse (left) and Bobby Joe Leaster (1950-2020) (right), who was accused of a 1970 murder in Dorchester and imprisoned for 15 years. Exonerated and released thanks to new evidence and the tireless advocacy of Chris Muse and his father Bob, Leaster spoke movingly of his experience and the justice system.
When the Janjaweed militia, backed by the Sudanese government, entered his village in the Darfur region of Sudan, El-Fadel Arbab was 12. Leaving his family El-Fadel fled to Egypt, was forced to become a child slave, managed to escape and eventually ended up in Portland, Maine. Now a leader of the Fur Cultural Revival, part of the Darfur Refugee Community of Maine, El-Fadel detailed his harrowing experiences and addressed the needs of the Darfur refugee community.
Gerda Weissman Klein (b. 1924) survived the Holocaust as a prisoner in four concentration/forced labor camps and as part of a death march. Her autobiography of her upbringing and experience as a Polish Jew and an Academy Award-winning film about her story shared her experiences with the wider world. Her husband Kurt Klein (1921-2002) was a refugee from Nazi Germany who, despite the American government's refusal to provide his parents with visas (leading to his parents' eventual death in Auschwitz) served in the US military and was a member of the unit that liberated Gerda. Gerda and Kurt spoke to Facing History students in their last public talk together.
Henry Greenbaum (1918-2018) spoke frequently Facing History students when we visited Washington. Henry and his family were imprisoned in the Starachowice ghetto in Poland until his mother, two sisters and their children were deported and murdered at the Treblinka death camp. Eventually Henry was sent to Auschwitz and incarceratec at Buna-Monowitz (Auschwitz III) and when the Soviet army was approaching, marched to the Flossenburg and then Dachau concentration camps in Germany. Henry's spirit and resilience remained a lasting memory for the Facing History students who were privileged to meet him.
Nesse Galperin Godin's powerful account of her experience during Nazi occupation was one that Facing History students often heard when visiting Washington, DC. Nesse (b. 1928) and her family were imprisoned in the Šiauliai ghetto in Lithuania. Her father was deported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Later she was deported to the Stutthof concentration camp. Eventually she forced on a death march as the Soviet troops were advancing; of the 1000 female prisoners on that march, only 200--including Nesse--survived.
Gerda Krebs-Seifer (b. 1927), born into a Jewish family in south eastern Poland, I was an only child of Henryk and Edyta Krebs, was trapped in the Lwow Ghetto. After her mother was deported in a roundup in the Ghetto in 1942, she eventually was hidden by a Polish Catholic family, taking the birth certificate of their child who had died in infancy. Of 40 family members, only Gerda and a cousin survived. Gerda shared her powerful and tragic experience with Facing History classes.
Grandfather of two Facing History students, Victor Erlich (1914-2008) was the son of Henryk Erlich, leader of the Polish Jewish Labor movement known as the Bund. When Poland was divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the family were in the area of the country controlled by the Soviets and his father was arrested. Despite appeals from both Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein, it is believed that Stalin had Erlich executed. Meanwhile Victor and his family were living in Warsaw and manage to flee through Russia (eluding the Soviet NKVD) to Japan, finally arriving in the United States via Canada in 1942. He joined the US military and returned to the European front. Later he headed the Yale University Slavic languages and literature department. Facing History students were riveted by his story.
Elizabeth Fickert Dopazo was a teenager in a family of Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany when the Nazis arrested her father. Targeting Jehovah's Witnesses because of their refusal to pledge allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi state, Elizabeth's family experienced repeated harassment and Elizabeth and her brother reluctantly joined the Hitler Youth. Her father was imprisoned at a number of concentration camps and still refused to sign a document renouncing his religions beliefs in exchange for his freedom. He was executed at age 35.
Richard Sonnenfelt (1923-2009) and his brother Helmut, both born in Germany to Jewish parents, were placed by their parents in a boarding school in England in 1938. Shortly after World War II was declared, he was interned in England as an enemy alien and sent to a prison in Australia. Eventually he was released, emigrated via India to the United States and arrived in April 1941. While serving in the US Army, Richard entered the liberated Dachau concentration camp and witnessed what took place there. Because he was fluent in both German and English, he was recruited to be an interpreter and served as the main interpreter for Nazi leader Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg trials in 1946. Later one of the team that invented color television for RCA, Sonnenfeldt relayed an insider's view of one of the most significant trials in world history.
Wojciech Smoleń, a longtime guide and specialist on the history of the Holocaust in Poland, is our go-to specialist on the death camp and its history when Facing History students visit Poland. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were prevented from traveling, Wojtek led us on a three-hour virtual visit to the site that was riveting and highly informative.
After her husband and two brothers were killed and she lost her right arm in mortar attacks on the capital Sarajevo during the genocide in Bosnia, Jasmina Dervisevic-Cesic, who was originally from Visegrad, fled the country. In 1993, she was the first Bosnian refugee granted permission to seek medical care in the United States. Jasmina has twice shared her experience and her deep knowledge of the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina with Facing History students.
Richard Nsanzabaganwa (left) and Alphonse Deo Nkunzimana (right) as children were friends in Rwanda. One was from a Hutu family; the other Tutsi. Richard lost most of his family during the genocide When they spoke to Facing History students in 2003, they had only rediscovered one another.
Before her untimely death in 2009, Facing History students were privileged to hear from Alison des Forges, who as Human Rights Watch's staffer in Rwanda, meticulously documented what had happened during the 1994 genocide in her 1999 book, Leave None to Tell the Story.
Claude Kaitare spoke twice to Facing History students about what he witnessed at age 14 during the Rwandan genocide and the loss of several members of his family.
South African judge Richard Goldstone (b. 1938) shared his role as leader of the Goldstone Commission investigating political violence in South Africa between 1991-1994 as well as his work as the first prosecutor in both the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda immediately after both genocides.
American Christian missionary Carl Wilkens (b. 1958), the only known American to have remained in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, has spoken twice to Facing History students about his efforts to save orphans in the Gisimba orphanage and his work as the head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in the country.
Marjorie Agosín, Chilean-American writer and professor who has written extensively about human rights in Chile and, in particular, the arpilleras imagery produced by Chilean women who lost family members during the dictatorship of Augustin Pinochet (1973-1990). Marjorie shared the story of the arpilleras and the fate of thousands of missing in Chile.
John Heffernan has spoken on several occasions to Facing History students: first in his role as the head of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience and later in his role as the executive director of Speak Truth to Power, a project of the NGO Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
Before he became a US Senator from Minnesota, Al Franken hosted (from 2004-2007) a daily radio program on the progressive news station Air America. When he visited Facing History students, he talked about his engagement with politics and about the legacy of former Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone.
Faraj Adnan, prominently featured in the 2001 film Promises, about children growing up in Israel and Palestine, talked with Facing History students about his life under Israeli occupation in the Deheishe refugee camp, near Bethlehem.
Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl, founders of Partners in Health, talked with Facing History students about their approach to global health internationally and focused in particular on their work in Haiti and Rwanda.
Albert Holland spoke with Facing History students about what he experienced and witnessed in Boston during the 1974-1975 court-mandated desegregation of the Boston Public Schools, when Holland was assistant headmaster at South Boston High School.
In the fall of 1974, Steve Kirschbaum was a bus driver for the Boston Public Schools, driving routes from Roxbury to South Boston High School. He shared the violence and attacks on the school buses that he experienced during the year.
Thanks to the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Facing History students were able to host a performance and talk back session with circus performers Guillaume Saladin and Yamoussa Bangoura, world-class acrobats who seek to bring hope and change to their struggling communities through their two circuses—Artcirq and Kalabante in the Canadian Arctic and Guinea, West Africa respectively.
St John Barned-Smith '03, a former Facing History student and now celebrated reporter for the Houston Chronicle, spoke to Facing History students about his work in Texas and the challenges facing American journalists more broadly.
Actress, director, and playwright Rohina Malik performed two of her plays--Unveiled and Keeping of Faith: Sisters of Story--for Facing History students and the wider Boston Latin community as we examined issues of anti-Muslim xenophobia.
Chris Idzik, Seevak Chair in History (1998-2000).
The Seevak Chair in History
When Sheldon Seevak expressed interest initially in having the school offer a Facing History program, an initial effort was spearheaded by a few English teachers, who incorporated specific readings as well as pedagogical approaches into their high school-level English classes.
Subsequently, Shelley endowed a chair to lead this effort in a more robust fashion. The first Seevak chair in history was Chris Idzik, who had been a history teacher at Brookline High School and more recently had been a program associate at Facing History in Brookline, Massachusetts. Chris led the program, then offered in grades 10, 11, and 12 (prior to the implementation of MCAS testing in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, from September 1998 through June 2000.
During the 1998-1999 academic year, Judi Freeman, who had recently transitioned from her first career as an art museum curator, specializing in modern and contemporary art, worked with Chris Idzik as his student teacher at Boston Latin School. She returned to serve as the second Seevak Chair in History and has served in that position since September 2000.
Judi Freeman, Seevak Chair in History (2000-present).
In November 2017, members of the Seevak family, including Elinor Seevak (front row center), along with Chris Idzik and Judi Freeman (front row left), celebrated the 20th anniversary of Facing History programs at Boston Latin School.