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History Wars Re-visited: The Battle Lines of Teaching about War in the Classroom

Posted by Cynthia Wallace...
22 October 2013 - 2:18pm

I recently had the opportunity to attend a public lecture sponsored by the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, held at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, on October 15. Guest speaker was Alan Sears, PhD, Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick, and member of the Executive Board of THEN/HiER. His presentation was entitled “Battle Lines in the Schools: Teaching the History of War and Society for the Common Good.”

This was the first in a series of public lectures, hosted each fall by the Gregg Center. Sears seemed happily in his element, as he challenged the audience to reconsider their own pre-conceived beliefs about why we teach students about war. Watch a video of his talk.

Harkening back to the History Wars of nearly 20 years ago, Sears argued that the “what” of history has long been a point of contention in many countries (including Canada), particularly when it comes to war. Rather than obsessing about what narrative would be “good” for students, Sears argued, our efforts are better spent focusing on the “how” behind such narratives. In this way, he reasoned, the “competing visions” of war can provide ample opportunities for engaging students in the on-going heated debates that are central to any democracy.

Sears described the "battle lines" of teaching about war as existing between two extremities. On one side stands the “three cheers” approach to history education, epitomised by J.L. Granatstein’s (1998) highly controversial polemic, Who Killed Canadian History, which positions war as central to nation-building.  On the other side, stands the “social cohesion” approach to history education, exemplified by Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel’s (2008) two volume History of the Canadian People, in which war takes a back seat to other social factors. 

Why teach the history of war in the classroom? Sears responded to this question with four clearly articulated reasons about why we shouldn't teach war. We should not, he said, teach about war in order to simply:

  • Create historians or students of history
  • Foster a love of nation
  • Imagine a nation that should have been
  • Commemorate the fallen

These, he explained, reflect the politics of war in the classroom. They are designed to shape the student to fit the nation (either real or imagined). 

Alternatively, Sears challenged the audience to consider war as an educational tool for engaging students in the messiness of democratic ideals. In this sense, he explained, debates can remain ever fluid, ever contested and open to an expanded view of humanity.

Indeed, much of Sear’s theoretical argument has been outlined within his chapter in the publication New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada (2011). For this reason, as a preface to listening to his lecture, I’d recommend that you read his chapter, in order to gain a deeper understanding of how Sears has aligned historical thinking with citizenship education. Drawing heavily from the Common Good paradigm of Keith Barton and Linda Levstick (2008), Sears has argued that history and citizenship work hand-in-hand, fostering democracies that are “participatory, pluralistic, and deliberative” (p. 355). These principles of citizenship education lingered throughout his lecture.

After deconstructing the aforementioned political reasons for teaching about war, Sears brought his audience back to the central question: Why teach the history of war and society in the classroom?

Sears presented seven bold reasons why the topic of war can contribute to a student’s vision of a "common good":

1. War is significant: Because war has impacted so many people, in so many different ways, and continues to be a threat to the safety and well-being of so many people worldwide, its role in past, present, and future events cannot be ignored.

2.  War is iconic: The timelessness of "man’s inhumanity to man" transcends all social, political and pedagogical barriers. Regardless of one’s own beliefs, the profundity of war can make for a highly effective learning opportunity.

3. War is contested: The battle lines that have been drawn around the teaching of war, are, in themselves, a good thing. This is because the contentious nature of war actually enables students to be actively engaged in deliberations that are characteristic of any democratic society.

4. War is multilayered and complex: The history of war can (and should) be approached from many different angles and historiographical positions. In this way, the topic is never one-dimensional, and there are never any easy answers.

5. War takes us beyond ourselves: It is important to remember that Canada was part of an alliance of nations.  War involves individuals acting within the broader context of many people, many nations, and many political fronts.

6. War is accessible: It touches upon local communities and local history, so it provides an effective way of placing localities within the broader context of world events.

7. The study of war is unfinished: It enables students to participate in historical questions that are not already answered. War is constantly open to re-examination, as new sources of evidence become available to the classroom, and as world events impact our perspective upon the past.

All of these reasons point to the role that history education, and (more specifically) teaching about war, can play in a student’s education. The solution, Sears advocates, rests in embracing controversy, and opening up messy discussions within the classroom, that require careful historical analysis, reasoned judgement, and active deliberation.

How do you frame war narratives within your history lessons?

Photo: Author's photo.