The Dept. of Education, in its seemingly endless quest to discover new ways for students and teachers to waste their time, has approved a high-school course on the holocaust. Centered around a 400-page textbook called “Facing History and Ourselves,” the course is a semester-long exercise in intellectual and psychological nosepicking, an extended submersion into irrationalism and a tool deliberately designed to inculcate guilt in the callow minds of the young.

Written by Margot Stern Strom and William S. Parsons of the Facing History and Ourselves Foundation in Brookline, Massachusetts, the textbook explores both the Nazi destruction of the European Jews and the Turkish massacres of Armenians in World War I. But the textbook, accompanied by outside readings and audio-visual aids, is not just another history lesson. It seems to downplay the acquisition of historical knowledge and understanding and deliberately cultivates both ideological and psychological responses in its students. That it is successful in doing so emerges clearly from comments of students who have had the misfortune to endure the course so far.

Among the things to do and learn in the course are to “discuss why the study of genocide is avoided in classrooms and textbooks.” One suggested question the teacher should ask the class is, “How would you respond to parents who want to shield their children from the Holocaust?” One student had this to say about the total onslaught of the course: “This history is grim and it can build up inside and make you feel ugly and hopeless. At times I did.”

After watching a film by the late Jacob Bronowski on science and knowledge, another student commented, “I think I understand now. There is no certainty. . . . we can’t be sure about anything.” Another film, about a German soldier who refused to shoot innocent Yugoslavs during the war, elicited this response from a student: “The film asks the question: ‘How far should we go in defense of our morals?’ I don’t know if we can or should go all the way all the time. What good are one’s morals if one is dead?”

Given the textbook’s approach, it’s not surprising that wallowing in the course for several months leads teenage high-school students to start questioning the value of morality and the certainty of knowledge itself. Throughout “Facing History and Ourselves” there is a hammerjack refrain that the holocaust was a logical outcome of Christianity, middle-class morality, and Western civilization.

“It is easier to dwell,” the textbook assures the students, “on Denmark as a nation which saved its Jewish citizens than it is to learn about the roles of the Catholic church, the American president, and the collaboration in many occupied nations.” In one reading selection, entitled “A Christian Response to Contemporary Antisemitism in Christianity,” Tom F. Driver of Union Theological Seminary notes that “a body of liberal Christian educators” refused to go on record against the Rev. Bailey Smith’s vapid remark a few years ago that “God does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” Apparently you just can’t count on Christians to resist hatred and mass murder.

Commenting on the rise of the Nazis, the textbook says that “without strong democratic leadership and the cooperation and support of the major institutions such as the Church, . . . the organized and individual resistance to hate was small and ineffectual. . . . And as the state promoted its racist ideas by allying racism with cleanliness, honesty, family, and hard work, familiar virtues of the church and middle class, the masses chose to follow.”

It’s understandable that by the end of the course, some students have experienced something akin to spiritual rape. “I feel,” commented one, “as though something I have had all my life has been taken away from me, something that can never be totally restored. I almost feel so awful without it, perhaps it’s a form of innocence, a removal of my protective blinders. We all in our struggling humanity have to clutch to our eyeballs to keep out the cold light of despair. Looking at things as they really are is a form of growing up.”

“But awareness is just the beginning!” chirps the textbook, leaping in its final chapter to discuss such contemporary issues as the creationist-evolutionist controversy, the Moral Majority, and nuclear war. Looking at things as they really are is indeed part of growing up, but “Facing History and Ourselves” wraps reality in such a miasma of moral doubt and confusion that the adolescent minds submerged in this course will never catch a clear glimpse of historical truth and moral responsibility.