In December, Roger Brooks became chief executive of Facing History and Ourselves, a Brookline nonprofit whose mission is to fight hatred and promote tolerance. It began in 1976 as a Holocaust class and has grown into a 180-person organization that reaches 3 million students a year. Brooks, 57, previously worked at Connecticut College, where he was dean of faculty, chief academic officer, and a professor of Judaic studies. He spoke with Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer.
1. Although the Holocaust is more than 70 years in the past, Brooks says the racism, prejudice, and genocides that continue worldwide reinforce the need for an educational group like Facing History, which helps students develop into “a more humane and informed citizenry.”
“Think of the things that have surfaced again in this past year. Race in America has become really ugly around issues from Ferguson to Eric Garner, all the way back to the Stand Your Ground case in Florida. Anti-Semitism has reared its head again, and think what’s happening with the clash of culture between ISIS and the West. There’s never been a time when Facing History is more important.”
2. Brooks has visited all 10 of the organization’s offices — eight in the United States plus one each in London and Toronto — and made a presentation at the British Parliament. While there, he was struck by what he calls “the Harry Potter-esque” route to the room where the event was held.
“You go upstairs and downstairs and to the left and to the right, and all of a sudden you come to this open space with stairs going in three directions. You felt like you could never have found your way out. I grew up in Minneapolis, which is a big city now but was a little city when I was growing up, so Parliament seemed like the big time.”
3. On the website Rate My Professors, students at Connecticut College gave Brooks top rankings in “helpfulness” and “clarity,” but a medium to low score in “easiness.” Brooks acknowledges that he wasn’t a softie when it came to grading and says he’s proud of that reputation.
“I’m duty-bound to say that Rate My Professors should never be consulted to learn a ton about a faculty. But, that said, I think they got that right. I’m very clear, but I’m also a rigorous professor, and I think most students love being held to a high standard. If they walked away with an A or B in my class, they really worked hard to get it.”
4. At Connecticut College, Brooks co-taught a course called “martial arts and religion” with a sensei (martial arts teacher) at a local dojo (martial arts training school). The class was part on-campus seminar, part practice session where Brooks sparred with his students.
“They got to beat the snot out of me on the mat, and then we’d go back to the college and talk about the relationship between the American version of martial arts and Japanese religion. We were looking at Shinto and Daoism and a little bit of Zen Buddhism, and the way martial arts are often brought into an American dojo. Almost every American dojo begins the lesson with students lining up and bowing to their sensei and a shrine. Where’d that come from? What’s the shrine about? It was basic things like that we were looking at.”
5. After the release of the 2007 movie “The Visitor,” which portrays a Connecticut College professor neglecting his teaching while searching for meaning in life, Brooks wrote a humorous letter to Richard Jenkins, who was up for an Oscar for the role. Brooks congratulated him for being “the first fictional Connecticut College professor nominated for an Academy Award” but noted that his character was “certainly not representative of our dedicated, engaged, and highly accomplished faculty.”
“Tongue-in-cheekly, we were defending the honor of Connecticut College but also trying to make the larger point that the world of higher ed depicted in popular culture is not actually the way it is. It was a caricature, like the rumpled old professor who walks around unable to figure out where he’s going even though he’s the world’s greatest expert in his narrow field. But the reality is most college professors are doing their best to help the next generation of students learn and surpass them, which is what we do at Facing History: We work with teachers to help their students be even better citizens and even better members of our society than we are.”