Concern and Controversy: Teaching the First World War

"Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." - Edmund Burke

With the hundredth anniversary of its outbreak this year, the First World War looms over the horizon like a lumbering giant of educational controversy.

The UK's always outspoken education secretary Michael Gove has stirred another of his monthly controversies by writing on the subject. Suggesting that our view of the war has been warped by the influence of left-wing academics and television producers, he has created a backlash of anger and ridicule while friends and allies leap to his defence. It's a debate that will change few opinions, but has filled some entertaining column inches.

With or without Gove this was likely to become a touchy subject. It would be wrong not to teach such a significant event in its centennial year, but we need to think more carefully than ever about how to handle it.

Floundering in Flanders

It's not hard to understand why an event that killed millions still stirs high emotions. A terrible, gruelling conflict whose most famous element was the mud and blood shed in northern France, everyone involved wants to honour the lives lost. But for different people that means very different things.

For those who share Gove's view, it is an insult to the fallen not to recognise the nobility of their sacrifice and the justice of their cause. They view the allied role in the war as a just one, defending against German aggression. To say otherwise belittles our loss.

For others - and I freely admit to sharing this view - there was no nobility or justice in this war. Millions of ordinary people died for the sake of national pride and the political games of those in power. To say otherwise belittles our loss.

With such polarised opinions, how can we do justice to the subject in schools?

Facing the past with courage

The answer, or course, is to treat pupils like intelligent human beings capable of forming their own opinions. None of us can completely eradicate our views from the way that we teach a subject, but we can endeavour to teach both sides and to let pupils make up their own minds. It's a way of teaching the skills as well as the facts of history, letting them explore the opportunities and the challenges of interpretation.

We should not be afraid to teach a topic because it is controversial, or to look that controversy in the eye. We are lucky that, unlike those young men of a century ago, we do not have to muster the courage to march into the artillery-blasted hell of no-man's land, or to face imprisonment or even death for refusing to fight. We can at least have the courage to discuss their fate and the way that people of all persuasions feel about it today.


Image by Toronto History via Flickr creative commons

Andrew Knighton

About Andrew Knighton

I'm a writer and ex-teacher. You can find more of my writing on education at: I also have a blog on reading and writing:

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