Classroom Wars : Teaching About War
Via The Smart Set
History teachers love war. Our classes are filled with it.History students love war, too. Some go for the stories of battle. One of my students, known school-wide for his obsession with all things WWII, was frequently found poring over picture books of tanks and weapons, reading the stories of soldiers and generals. Others go for the high morality of it — epics of slavery abolished, dictators vanquished, worlds made safe for democracy. And the tales of personal courage, bravery, and sacrifice do often inspire — the Glory of the 54th Massachusetts or the simple patriotism of Sergeant York.So as a teacher of history, as a teacher of wars, imagine the knotting of stomach and tightening of chest that occurred when I encountered, seven years late, Drew Gilpin Faust’s article ‘“We should grow too fond of it’: why we love the Civil War.” Faust writes:
War is, by its very definition, a story. War imposes an orderly narrative on what without its definition of purpose and structure would be simply violence. We as writers create that story; we remember that story; we provide the narrative that by its very existence defines war’s purpose and meaning. We love war because of these stories. But we should ask ourselves how in the construction of war’s stories we may be helping to construct war itself.While Faust asks hard questions of her own profession, let me present the same fearful possibility to the teachers of America’s millions of primary and secondary school students. Have we — by the curricula we accept, the readings we assign, the stories we tell, the movies we show — glamorized war, infused it with meaning, and made it normal and respectable for future generations to wage?By structuring curriculum in certain ways, we shape the next generation’s perception of past reality. Indeed, it is possible — likely, even — that for many in times and places past, war was a priority, so by making it a priority in our classrooms we simply reflect what once was. But I fear, with Faust, that our project is much more creative. That by making war a priority in our curriculum – organizing teaching units around it, surrounding ourselves with gripping stories about it – we actually make war a priority in ways that it wasn’t. We construct a past that never was, and in doing so construct a future that need not be: a world in which war is a constant presence, a fellow traveler. A world in which war is normal. Operating out of such a norm, might our students move on to build such a world themselves? “Our narratives are not just modeled from war,” Faust insists, “they become models for war.”Faced with these very fears that Faust brings up, I endeavored to make my eighth graders’ study of the Civil War more reflective, with qualitative and quantitative data on the deadly costs of the war. Forced to balance the overwhelming statistics of dead and wounded — of battlefields flowing with blood and piled with bodies — with the prospect of slavery abolished, most students seemed relatively unconflicted: the war was worth it.Inevitably, it seems, more voices in my classroom are willing to speak up for war’s noble purpose, its grand narrative, all-too-comfortably calculating away six- and seven-figure body counts, factoring away numerous tales of suffering, and rearranging variables to conclude that the end justifies the means, the sum is somehow greater than the piles of bodies and body parts. Out of violence comes redemption.In how we teach war — indeed, in trying to justify our fascination with war — we have perhaps tried too hard to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. And if we insist on such narratives, is it any surprise that our students will grow up seeing the world through them, making decisions based on them, building a future that runs by the same storyline?