What should we remember in schools?

David Aldridge is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at Oxford Brookes University, where he leads the BA Programme in Education Studies.

In the mid-nineties the ‘Westhill Project’, which aimed to produce high quality materials for teachers of Religious Education, published a series of packs called ‘Life Themes in the Early Years’. Each contained a collection of A3 colour images, complete with teacher’s notes and suggested activities. An image in one of these packs troubled me, when I encountered it as a trainee RE teacher at the turn of this century. The painting is of a familiar enough scene, which could be taking place in any rural English village at about this time. A large group gathers in a town square, ringed by Victorian terraced houses, village shops, some sort of town hall or municipal building, and a generous number of unseasonably verdant trees. Attention is focused on the military memorial in the middle of the square, on which poppy wreaths are being laid by local dignitaries. Some children in a military band play pipes and drums, and more young people in cadet forces, girls’ brigades or other uniformed institutions stand to well-behaved attention in carefully ordered ranks. White haired veterans lean on walking sticks and display their service medals, and the most prominent lettering in the image are the words ‘Royal British Legion’ adorning standards that are solemnly held aloft. A stone cross decorates the memorial, and beyond the square the clock and spire of the village church stand over the scene. Poignantly, in the foreground of the image, a mother in her Sunday best holds her son’s hand. Both have approached close to the memorial and contemplate it intently, their faces turned away from us.

It was not so much the representation of the scene that troubled me, although there was certainly something a little off-key about it, especially in hindsight. For one thing, every figure in the painting was white. As I recall, the theme of the pack was ‘Celebrations’, and what was being offered here was a British or Christian alternative to the celebrations from ‘other’ religious or cultural groups depicted elsewhere in the pack. Such gauche simplified contrasts are commonplace in RE resources and may or may not be unavoidable, but in any case it is part of the skill set of the specialist RE teacher to engage their students in questioning or problematising these representations. What concerned me more was the fact that, unlike many of the other culturally specific celebrations represented in the pack, this event was one which the school as an institution endorsed, reproduced and participated in – and not just my placement school. All over the country, most schools of all kinds, whether state funded or independent, faith-based or otherwise, were actively engaging their students in the event of remembrance, observing the two minutes’ silence, and reminding students of what and why we remember through assemblies and themed curricular activities. What was approached in my classroom as a complex, ambiguous and even contestable practice was presented by the institution as an unquestioned duty. It was perceived to be the job of schools, or so it seemed, to ensure that the younger generation of Britons respected and perpetuated the tradition of remembrance.

Anyone who doubts that there is a significant public debate about the nature and significance of the events surrounding ‘Armistice Day’ should pick up a copy of Ted Harrison’s recently released book, Remembrance Today. In the book, Harrison argues that we should reconsider our practices surrounding November 11th and Remembrance Sunday. His argument brings to the surface the range of radically different meanings that can be attached to the event of remembrance itself, and discusses the different ways that the event has been constructed and construed since its inception shortly after the First World War. His greatest concern is that what began as an expression of grief, a reminder of the futility of all war and an incitement to world peace, is in danger either of being politically exploited for the justification of contemporary military campaigns, or of fostering a military pride that might encourage rather than admonish against further involvement in armed conflict.

Along the way, Harrison questions the idea that an unbroken ideological thread has run through the conflicts of the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first, so that it might reasonably be argued that the principles for which the youth of the First World War gave their lives were the same values that our troops today are dying for. He argues for the widespread realisation in the Great War’s immediate aftermath that the conflict had in fact been largely unnecessary and inconclusive, and might at least in all of its futile mechanised horror serve as the ‘war to end all wars’. He points to the posturings of today’s politicians alongside those rows of World War II veterans, from which it might be inferred that to question the legitimacy of the contemporary conflicts into which soldiers are still being sent to kill and die might somehow devalue the sacrifices made by those countless other soldiers to date. Harrison carefully analyses recent changes in the rhetoric of heroes, and argues that to attribute heroism to any soldier’s death, regardless of its specific circumstances, even to the act of enlisting itself, risks emptying the concept of any critical meaning, especially dangerous in a contemporary situation where we are increasingly aware of moral depredations servicemen are capable of committing against their enemies – even their comrades in arms; this rhetoric, he argues, can be employed to encourage support for a conflict even when its legitimacy is questionable – whatever we might think of politicians, he explains, we do not want to let down ‘our heroes’.

Harrison describes the ambiguous literary dialogue we find in the war poets, even surrounding the symbolism of the poppy, in which the relationship between the nobility of sacrifice and the futility and horror of modern warfare are explored and unfolded, and shows how this tension is often flattened in appropriations of these literary sources for public remembrance, to be replaced by an unambiguous sentimentality. He explores how in the complex theological relationships often observed in rituals of remembrance, we find little of the radical pacifist message of the New Testament, and much more of other spiritual traditions that involve the sanctification of those who die in battle. He explores the complexity and range of the memories of the dwindling few who are able to recall those massive conflicts of the twentieth century, which are as likely to be of those enemies that they were forced to kill as the comrades they watched die. The contemporary rhetoric of remembrance emphasises the virtue of one who is willing to sacrifice his own life, but suppresses the concomitant fact that soldiers are also willing to perform acts which in any other circumstance are considered morally repugnant. It is impossible to survive a war, he argues, without feelings of guilt, and for survivors the significance of remembrance is as an act of atonement as well as of honouring the departed. Finally, Harrison inspects the militaristic trappings of remembrance ceremonies, and how remembering the sacrifice of ‘our own’ soldiers perpetuates the ‘us and them’ distinction so necessary to war propaganda, and neglects the civilian casualties on both sides which in most modern conflicts have far outnumbered those of soldiers. Most significantly, he draws attention to the surprisingly common recollection of career soldiers that it was in fact the pomp and emotional intensity of a remembrance ceremony that inspired them, as young boys, to pursue a military vocation.

The value of Harrison’s book does not depend on his winning the day on these issues. Although he presents a persuasive case for making a number of changes to the way we engage in the event of remembrance, similarly persuasive cases could be offered for making a host of different changes, or for leaving remembrance much the same, or for doing away with it altogether. The complex networks of significance that need to be unravelled mean that this is an issue that will not be decided quickly, or with reference to any simple or self-evident presuppositions. There, in fact, is the significance of Harrison’s book for educators. What his argument does is bring us out into the open space of public debate. Once we are in this space, we realise that, for all that we are rationally justified in holding our position on the meaning and importance of the event of remembrance, others are similarly rational in holding distinctly different positions. This realisation compels us to engage in that public debate, to listen to the reasons others are offering, and to attempt to offer justifications of our own position. Once we reach this position, we realise that our educational stance on the event of remembrance must also be brought into the open and exposed to scrutiny. Are we presenting in schools as unambiguous and uncomplicated an event whose significance is increasingly contested in the public sphere? Have we entertained the possibility that the interpretation of the event that we either explicitly or implicitly transmit through our institution’s involvement with remembrance has not been conclusively demonstrated to be the most appropriate, truthful, or valuable of the range of alternatives? If these questions remain unresolved in the public space, they cannot very well be settled in advance of our making decisions about the relationship between educational institutions and the broader public act of remembrance.

We don’t normally, as individuals, think of our relationship with historical events that we did not live through as one of remembrance. Those who are able to recollect the massive conflicts of the twentieth century are, with the passage of time, dwindling in numbers. Herein lies something of the curiously educational nature of a shared event of remembrance. Certain events in history have been deemed to be of such moral or national significance that it is not sufficient to study them as other past events are studied, through the lens of the academic practice of history. Rather, these events must be recalled or recollected even by those who did not live through them. This is only possible by cultivating a collective or social memory, through the institution of rituals and cultural practices which are passed on across generations. By this means, some sort of memory is engendered even though the events themselves were not experienced by every participant. It would seem, though, that collective memories are subject to all of the fallibilities and complications of individual ones: events can be misremembered, suppressed pathologically, even invented; some experiences – we know – are in fact better forgotten than constantly revisited.

There is no denying that we have a duty to learn from the past, and this is of course a moral duty that can be promoted in educational institutions without any controversy whatsoever. But this additional relation of ‘remembrance’ is one which educators would do well to explore further. What is recalled in the event of remembrance? What phenomenon occurs across the country during a two-minute silence? What is the collective nature of this event? What common thread unites the consciousness of the collected individuals that agree to remember simultaneously? What cultural memory connects the ex-serviceman who recalls the dying screams of a comrade in arms and a fourteen year old Muslim who has come to associate the elderly uniformed men who march in front of the Cenotaph on the TV with what she perceives as an unjust war perpetuated against members of the worldwide community of Muslims? What role, most importantly, does the educator have in encouraging or shaping these memories for the purposes of preparing young people for the future?

The event of remembrance is not the only contested public phenomenon to have had this uneasy relationship with educational institutions. Although the event is not necessarily theological in character (and many Christians are in fact uneasy with the way that Christianity has become implicated in these military rituals), there are some connections to be drawn with the place of religion in schools. The truth of the major world religions and their alternatives is a similarly open and contested question, where – in the absence of a definitive resolution – a number of contrasting positions are equally rationally justifiable. For this reason the place of a ‘broadly Christian’, compulsory act of daily worship in all state funded schools has for some time been much called into question. While it does not look like the legislation on this is likely to change any time soon, the reticence of Ofsted to criticise the numerous schools that do not uphold this requirement in anything but the loosest interpretation of Christian worship demonstrates how the tide of professional opinion on this has largely shifted, whatever the influence on government of the church lobbies. Similarly, it is for the most part acknowledged by those of all faiths and none that state funded schools have no right to implement a ‘confessional’ interpretation of the RE agreed syllabus, or one in which religious education is deemed to be a means of nurture into the beliefs of a particular faith community. Rather, it is now broadly agreed that a non-confessional approach to RE, in which children of all faiths and none are encouraged to engage with the alternative beliefs of a range of religious perspectives, can be edifying for all concerned. This is a transition in approach that largely happened in the later half of the twentieth century; although this has been hotly debated, the real controversy that remains over RE concerns only how important this subject area is in relation to the other demands of the curriculum. Finally, and perhaps most high profile at present, there is the ‘faith schools’ debate about whether state funded institutions should be allowed to endorse and advocate a particular religious perspective across the curriculum. On a related vein, in a recent ‘Impact’ publication on patriotism in schools produced by the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, Professor Michael Hand of Birmingham University argues that it remains an open question whether nurturing patriotism in students is beneficial or harmful to them. In the absence of a public resolution of this question, the only justifiable educational approach to patriotism on the curriculum is, if you like, a ‘non-confessional’ one in which students are neither simply encouraged to be nor discouraged from being patriotic – rather they are taught about the issue in such a way that they are encouraged to form their own rational perspective on whether or not the emotion is valuable; the public debate is brought into the classroom.

Although remembrance is not then alone as a problematic issue, it is conspicuous in being the most significant potentially ‘confessional’ event not to have received such critical attention in schools. This is hardly surprising, once one considers the barriers to questioning the event of remembrance in the public sphere. The reaction to Ted Harrison’s book demonstrates how easy it is to be accused of dishonouring the memory of the long or recently departed, of unpatriotic or subversive intent, and of harming the worthwhile charitable endeavours of the Royal British Legion. But it is precisely this kind of widespread public outrage that makes it all the more important to present the nature and significance of the event of remembrance as a questionable and controversial topic in schools. It is important that those students who harbour private suspicions or doubts about the value or significance of the event of remembrance (and many do) feel that they have a legitimate public space in which to voice and explore these thoughts. If the significance of the event is presented as uncontested, or unquestionable, such students have no choice but to self-identify as subversive, counter-cultural, or as the ‘other’ or ‘enemy’ of what they perceive to be the predominant point of view. It is therefore unsurprising that although in 2010 the widely reported burning of poppies by Muslim protestors on Remembrance Sunday was universally demonised by the public press, it was nevertheless replicated in school playing fields across the country – what legitimate channel could these students see through which to voice their doubts about the cultural practice into which they were being inducted? The message must be conveyed to students that it is neither disrespectful nor unpatriotic to refuse to participate unquestioningly in any ceremony – particularly one which (and let us be realistic about the cultural reference points of many of our students at all stages of schooling) one has little understanding of beyond the simplified projections of the popular media.

I do not mean to suggest that there is not already excellent practice in schools through which students are encouraged to form their own opinions about the events of the world wars of the twentieth century and the moral justification of conflict more generally. I have already suggested that RE is a context where war and peace are confidently treated as controversial issues, and I have observed and am aware of excellent treatment of war poetry in English, where students are engaged in sophisticated and sensitive discussion about the complexities outlined above. History, of course, is a context where students are encouraged to engage without compromise with the truth and horror of past wars. However, there is less clarity in the curriculum and amongst education professionals about the event of remembrance itself. Much of what has been produced in terms of explicit guidance for schools has been published by the Royal British Legion, an organisation which (and this is not in any way to denigrate the importance of the work done by this charity) needs to maximise the emotional impact of its ‘brand’ to increase its revenue, and has sought the help of internationally recognised PR companies to do this. What are our professional duties as educators and institutions in relation to this event? Can the season of remembrance be brought into schools as a controversial issue, or must remembrance be treated only with dutiful reverence? Should it, in fact, have no part in school life whatever?

This article is a call for educators to think carefully about these questions. The time has come to carefully study the different ways that remembrance is represented and reproduced in schools, to map the complex networks of historical, theological and political significance in which it is situated by both educators and students, and to engage in ethical deliberation about how best to proceed. Without a rationally agreed public consensus on what is to be remembered, how, and why, the exhortation to remember should be treated with as much sensitivity and caution as the more obviously controversial “Let us Pray”.

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3 thoughts on “What should we remember in schools?”

  1. I’d have thought that most schools have History or English or RE lessons or assemblies which involve discussion of Remembrance Day – most children are receiving lots of “education” regarding remembrance in this context. There is indeed a potential difficulty with a confessional approach but, given the likelihood of coming into contact with many different teachers and discussions about Remembrance Day (either in a single week in November, or at least over a school career), most children will presumably access a range of “confessional” positions and views on remembrance – plus, those perspectives from families and the media.

    Any ambiguity about the purpose or role of remembrance in a school context runs parallel to possible ambiguity in wider society. Consider the wearing of white poppies that some Christians wear to emphasise peace rather than a red poppy which these same people claim celebrates war and idealises heroic sacrifice and violence – I always think the white poppy-wearers have missed the point in that I’ve never met a red poppy-wearer who would view their wearing of a red poppy as a celebration of war: rather it is as a symbol of the peace, freedoms and values that we enjoy and the lengths that members of our society have been willing to go to in order to facilitate and preserve that peace and those freedoms and values. To this extent, I think a clear understanding of the importance of freedom in British society and its connection to this secular and British “festival day” is a necessary component of Citizenship education (and SMSC education) in the UK. Surely an education approach is flawed if it permits children to erroneously conclude that Remembrance Day is about celebrating violence perpetrated in our name in contemporary conflicts? The purpose of Remembrance Day should be introduced sensitively but also reasonably didactically – a relativism where it is OK to think that Remembrance Day celebrates violence perpetrated in our name in contemporary conflicts would be a failure on our part as educators.

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