I taught my first history class at Missouri University in Columbia when I was barely 21. But after just one day in a classroom of bricks and tile and no windows at all, I knew that to teach history was to explore the meaning of life itself.
It didn't matter whether I was teaching the origins of Western civilization or the French Revolution, the decision to enter World War I or the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Every class was about the attempt to understand the nature of humanity.
It was all about truth. It was all about asking questions and grappling, again and again, with the beauty and the pain of human existence.
Early on, I was teaching the first courses on the Holocaust ever offered at MU. In those days, my students came to class with little or no knowledge of the gruesome genocide planned and executed before and during World War II. Most had never heard of the Nazis' "Final Solution," the blueprint for murdering every Jewish soul on the planet.
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Each semester was a lesson in shock and abhorrence, and I taught the material again and again in those years, because I believed my students could learn the meaning of the words "never again."
I was not alone. Across the country, such courses were increasingly included in university course catalogs. Conferences, films, data and texts on the subject proliferated.
It's been almost 25 years since I taught my first course on the Holocaust. The students of the early '80s have grown up. Now I teach their children's generation.
My students at UNCCharlotte now come into my Holocaust courses with some knowledge. The Holocaust is a Bad Thing that happened once; they learn that in fourth and fifth grades from reading such age-appropriate children's literature as "Number the Stars" and "The Devil's Arithmetic." Most have seen "Schindler's List."
My students have a blurry and badly understood set of words for disaster and pain: Next to "Holocaust" are the words "Rwanda" and "Darfur."
Humanity is capable of all sorts of horror.
If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that all the teaching in the world about our capacity to hate and destroy and murder has done, it seems, very little to change our capacity to hate and destroy and murder. The meaning of the words "never again"? We know what they mean; we don't manage to make those words real.
Today is Yom Hashoah, the day when we commemorate and remember the victims of the Holocaust. Though my students are presenting me a measure of indifference I never dreamed possible, they and I can and do strip away the ennui to get at the core questions.
Those remain to be asked in every generation.
I teach to explore the meaning of life, and even death. I teach because humanity must struggle with itself or give up the experiment of living. There is no reason for our existence if we do not try, with everything we have, to understand each other, to help each other, to protect each other.
May those we have lost be remembered. May the words "never again" someday be words we make real.