Commencement 2016: Biographies - Margot Stern Strom
Your extraordinary work in education has influenced how we reflect on history, and demonstrated how each of us can be a powerful advocate for peace and social justice—values that are deeply held here at Tufts. As a founder of Facing History and Ourselves, you have devoted your life to nurturing these values in young people so that they will speak out against prejudice and injustice. You have taught them how beliefs shape history in profound ways, and how bystanders, victims, and perpetrators determine those outcomes. Slavery, racism, and genocide are among the challenging issues addressed in curricula that now reach more than three million young learners around the world each year. What emerges and endures is the fundamental truth, that what we see is what we hold in our hearts. For helping fill countless hearts with love and respect, Tufts is proud to award you an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
MARGOT STERN STROM went to junior high school across the street from the city zoo. She could look out the window of her civics class and see the sign designating Thursday as “Colored Day Only”—the only time African Americans could visit. This was Memphis in the 1940s and ’50s, and Colored Day at the zoo was just one small brick in the wall that divided society into two rigidly separate, and unequal, sides.
Yet, Strom once wrote, “My teachers carefully avoided any mention of colored and white water fountains, seating arrangements on city buses, and other manifestations of Jim Crow. There was a powerful silence about race and racism, and no mention of anti-Semitism or the Holocaust. ‘Bad history’ was best forgotten. I look back at my teachers and wonder: Was there a conspiracy of silence? Surely all of my teachers were not racists. Were their voices stifled? If so, who silenced them?… My classmates and I were betrayed by that silence.”
Strom became a teacher herself, and she has devoted her career to education for social justice and the preservation of democracy. As a founder and former executive director of the international nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, which uses history to teach critical thinking and trusts adolescents to understand the complexity of both history and current events, she has enabled millions of students and their teachers to study the Holocaust, to investigate the roots of prejudice, and to understand their role as citizens in a democracy.
In the mid-1970s, thirty years after World War II, Strom was teaching middle school language arts and social studies at the Runkle School in Brookline, Massachusetts, and studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Like most school systems at the time, Brookline was not addressing the Holocaust in its history curriculum. After attending a conference on teaching about the Holocaust, Strom decided she had to “teach my own students what my teachers had failed to teach me—that history is largely the result of human decisions, that prevention of injustice is possible, and that education must have a moral component to make a difference.” She and her colleague Bill Parsons, with the support of the school superintendent, studied with scholars, religious leaders, and survivors, and developed material in their classrooms for what eventually would become Facing History and Ourselves. At the same time, Strom and her husband discovered that they had close family living in Brookline who were survivors of the Holocaust, and who would allow their stories to be shared in classrooms. “I learned from the grace with which they embraced other survivors—those who tell their stories of the legacies of hatred and discrimination in Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia, and other places where humans have behaved in the cruelest—and sometimes bravest—of ways,” Strom recalls.
In 1976 Strom left the classroom to become the director of a federal grant designed to launch Facing History and Ourselves, and in 1980 the organization was incorporated as a nonprofit, poised to respond to opportunities for growth nationally and globally. Under Strom’s leadership Facing History and Ourselves has grown into an international network of more than forty thousand educators reaching four million students in more than two hundred countries every year.
Through Facing History and Ourselves, Strom says, students learn “not only what happened, but also why it happened. They learn about the role played by the bystanders as well as those of the victims, perpetrators, and opportunists… They gradually understand the dangers of resolving complex problems by dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and then blaming ‘them’ for all of the ills of society.”
After leading the organization for nearly four decades, Strom stepped down in 2015 and was named president emerita and senior scholar. She continues to work with the organization, most notably on revising its seminal resource, Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, designed to engage teachers and students of diverse backgrounds in recognizing the connections between history, religion, race, and the world in which we live.
Strom will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Tufts.