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Magdalena Gross, PhD '14, joins faculty of Brown's Department of Education

September 18, 2015
By Jose Garcia Jr.
Magdalena Gross
Magdalena Gross
In her first semester as director of the history/social studies Master's program, Gross is offering a course on how countries teach about genocide.
How people understand their past — particularly when it is a difficult past — depends on circumstance. Among other offerings, Magdalena Gross will teach a course titled “Teaching a Difficult Past,” looking at curricula about difficult histories from World War II Poland and post-genocide Rwanda to contemporary social problems. 

What really happened during World War II was a topic of discussion in Magdalena Gross’s home. Half of the victims of the Holocaust were Polish Jews, and many of the Nazi death camps were located in Poland. Still, until recently, history education in Poland often glossed over this reality.

“Polish history education is fraught with difficult silences and omissions,” Gross said. Polish society may have a hard time reckoning with a difficult past.

Students in Poland haven’t always learned about World War II (1939-45). Prior to 2001, classroom textbooks mentioned the Holocaust only obliquely. Later, as Poland was joining the European Union, the government included the subject in textbooks. But still, Gross said, “There isn’t an understanding that countless victims in the gas chambers were Polish.” Her analysis showed that in much of the more recent textbook discussion of World War II, Jewish victims were separate from Poles.

How to develop a deeper, broader understanding of difficult histories is a technique Gross will pass on to her students. In the fall, she is joining the Brown faculty as a lecturer and director of the history/social studies master’s program in the Department of Education.

Gross acknowledges that her interest in the topic stemmed from her family’s own ties to World War II. When she entered her Ph.D. program at Stanford University, she thought she wanted to study education in post-genocide Rwanda. However, her family roots led her to complete an in-depth case study of Holocaust education in post-Soviet Poland.

“My grandparents are mostly Holocaust survivors, and my parents were born post-war in Poland,” Gross said. “They actually had to leave the country in 1968 because of an another political purging of the Jews at that time.”

Her contact with these stories from an early age helped her understand that “cultural curriculum” — a term coined by Sam Wineburg, her thesis adviser at Stanford, for the curriculum of everyday life and information that surrounds students — is just as important as textbooks, lectures, or history class. Gross is interested in how people learn about their past and where they get their information. During a trip to Poland in 2012, she looked at various types of media including Internet, TV shows, and movies as potential sources of information for teenagers to learn about the past. One part of her dissertation, Shaping the Past: Collective Memory, History Education, and Student Imaginations about World War II in Contemporary Poland, focused on a subset of students, outliers who developed an alternate narrative about the events that unfolded in Poland.

“They were able to talk about not only Polish Jews, Polish-Jewish relations, and even Jewish-Catholic complicity in the Holocaust, but they would often have sophisticated alternative narratives that were less nationalistic and not in the mainstream media,” Gross said. Her findings revealed that these students — a quarter of the sample — were twice as likely to cite history class as their most important source for historical information. In contrast, their peers were more likely to list their parents as the primary source of historical information, and half of the narratives of those peers avoided mentioning Jews.

Gross hopes to instill the same cultural curriculum approach to history in her students. As part of her appointment at Brown, she will teach three courses including "The Craft of Teaching" (an introductory course on education), a year-long master’s-level history methods course, and a course titled “Teaching a Difficult Past.” In the latter course, students will examine global case studies of curricula that try to deal with difficult histories.

The course will look at curricula in Rwanda, Poland, and other nations. Closer to home, students will analyze how the United States deals with issues of police brutality and how Southern textbooks might, for example, address lynching. Ultimately, she will ask her students to consider the consequences of not teaching these topics.

This story was written for and appeared originally on the News from Brown website. Jose Garcia Jr., the author of this article,  is a news clerk and writer in the Office of University Communications at Brown.