Thursday, 12 June 2014

Schools, children, history and values

Not long ago I was walking behind a group of Y13 students on my way to the staff room at the school where I work as a relief teacher. Two of them were prefects, the other was a German exchange student. It was a few weeks before Anzac day, and the German student asked the other two what it was all about. They didn't have a very in depth conversation about it, but the few sentences I overheard “Oh it's about the war … history and stuff …. they get you to read these bits from the bible and do this ceremony” were followed quickly by laughter and a change of topic. There was absolutely no hint of discomfort or anything due to the fact that the student was German. Rather, this was Boring Adult Business: they make you bow your head, read from the bible, sing the national anthem: all that sort of stuff. You, as a teenager, hold your breath and go through all the motions, waiting for the bell to ring.

I think this reinforces the claim I have made in earlier posts: commemorations like Anzac day actually have very little to do with history, and a lot to do with “values”. Children are not dumb to this – they are constantly lectured and admonished throughout school, encouraged to strive, do their best, respect others, be honest etc etc. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I think that ethics and values should inform our educational practices. But there is a distinction between, for example, a history lesson and a lecture from the school principal. It is this distinction itself which gets blurred with Anzac day commemorations. What the children pick up on much more readily, with a great deal of sensitivity (tone of voice, context, atmosphere), is the values side of the equation. It doesn't matter that much if they weren't listening during the history lesson when they supposedly learned the details of the battle of the Somme, or Gallipoli, or whatever – they know that when the principal asks for a minute of solemn silence, he really means it. If they get caught making a noise, they will certainly get into trouble.

There's a really interesting lecture given by Peter Stanley, an Australian military historian, at a history teacher's conference very recently. I don't know much about him or his views, apart from what I can infer by reading the transcript of the lecture. I doubt he would agree with many of the views I have expressed here in my blog. Anyway, it is interesting to note his views on this crucial distinction between history and values:

...the future, where, if we’re not very careful, we will see war history in schools used as a vehicle for explicit, compulsory commemoration, in which we are no longer able to look critically at Anzac, because to do so will be regarded as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘unpatriotic’. I fear that unless you are vigilant this will happen.

I should make clear my outright opposition to the way children are used – I would say exploited – in pursuit of a commemorative agenda. How often have we seen children conscripted to be either the background to commemoration, extras or actors, as in the event at the Australian War Memorial recently? We hear 10-year-olds saying, ‘we should be grateful because they died for us’, or ‘thank you to the brave soldiers who fell for our freedom’. I find this sort of exploitation and manipulation nauseating: it is not anything to do with education, but everything to do with propaganda.”

... should that educational effort extend to inculcating or fostering a respect for or adherence to Anzac as part of education? I think not: it is not up to schools or teachers in our Australia to inculcate ‘proper’ attitudes. And yet the quantity and character of so much of the educational resources directed at you – history teachers – is intended not to offer merely an historical resource but to encourage school teachers to adopt a basically favourable attitude towards the study of war. “

Clearly the situation is somewhat different here in New Zealand, where Anzac Day is not quite so much of a big deal as it is in Australia. But Anzac Day continues to grow and grow in stature and popularity. There must be a complex set of reasons for this growth, and I'm suspicious of the idea that it is a simple and spontaneous upsurge of pure patriotism. But it's a fact that can't be denied, and this fact will be further intensified and magnified next year on a massive scale. And children will be roped in to this, thousands upon thousands of them. As the innocents of history who need to be taught its Lessons, they are in some sense the main target of the moral commandment “Lest We Forget”. History, bible readings, bow your head, sing that song. All that stuff they make you do.

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