In the past week, two serendipitous events have inspired my students and reinvigorated my teaching. What did they have in common? They were unexpected, student-centred, informed by research and involved meeting real-world journalists and historians to debate timely questions about remembrance of the First World War.
The first happy accident, was Guardian journalist, Fran Abrams’ visit to Biddenham on Wednesday 6th November. Following our Executive Principal, Mike Berrill’s response to philosopher David Aldridge’s Impact paper ‘How ought war to be remembered in schools?’, Fran had scheduled to meet with Mike at Biddenham to get a school’s perspective on ‘Remembrance’. Aldridge’s controversial paper seeks to provoke a public debate about the nature and justification of remembrance in schools to coincide with the centenary of the First World War. In it he questions the ethical basis of the contemporary rituals and discourse of remembrance and challenges notions that young people should show ‘gratitude’ to those soldiers who died one hundred years ago.
As Head of History, I had, at short notice, been invited by Mike to join him and Fran for a coffee. I had expected a rushed chat sandwiched between teaching sixth form groups. However, when it transpired that Fran was running late, ‘coffee’ was replaced with the suggestion that she join our history class. Subsequently, Fran spent the best part of an hour hearing our students’ views on how war ought be remembered in schools. The students were nervously excited as Fran recorded their names and ages in short-hand, but soon warmed up, contributing to a discussion that was reflective and challenging as students shared their personal stance on what they believed to be the value or otherwise of remembering war in school.
Afterwards, the students were reluctant to leave the classroom and were buzzing with excitement: “Did you see the photographer standing on the desk to get that shot?” “Did you see her notepad?” “I hope she doesn’t misquote me…” were just some of the comments.
That afternoon, one of the Y12s who had taken part in the discussion emailed me a link to a debate in London on the following Monday, organised by the New Statesman in partnership with the British Legion: First World War – Does Britain romanticise its military history? The email read “Thought this may be of interest considering today’s discussion!”
It was this email that sparked a second happy accident, our visit to London on Monday night to participate in a debate whose panel included journalist and historian Simon Heffer, Historian Max Arthur, ITN news-anchor Alistair Stewart and Emma Mawdsley from the National Army Museum. Thanks to the flexibility of our educational visits coordinator Jan Schofield, visit paperwork which could have taken weeks to process was turned round in a couple of days and myself, the school nurse (whose presence was also a happy accident) and seven sixth formers clutching Starbucks coffee (it’s very exotic for teenagers from Bedford) found ourselves walking at pace through Bloomsbury to the Royal College of Surgeons.
As we entered the debating chamber, it was evident that our students were the only young people in a room. The debate itself was informative, challenging and engaging as the panel put forward their views on the motion. For Simon Heffer and Max Arthur, British military history was far from romanticised. Arthur, a former serviceman and oral historian who has interviewed more than 3000 combatants and non-combatant veterans of wars ranging from the First World War through to Afghanistan, informed us that the experience of those who had survived war was not one of glory or romance but of friendship in the midst of horror and grief.
For Heffer, the war was, on one level, an utter calamity which set in motion a chain of catastrophic events which shaped the bloody twentieth century and on another, an integral part of his family history. Heffer stated that he found no contradiction in recognising the heroism of the soldiers who fought, whilst at the same time accepting the futility of the war itself. In contrast, Mawdsley argued that three factors: the passage of time, our failure to understand the combatant’s experience of war and our difficulty in understanding the mind-sets and culture of Britons at the time of war, meant that the First World War had become mythologised.
At the end of the panel’s initial contributions, questions were invited from the floor. Two of our students were brave enough to take the microphone and pass comment on the debate. Informed by our discussion with Fran Abrams, one student commented on the unthinking, ritualistic nature of young people’s remembrance in schools. In response to Mawdsley’s argument, another student, observed that factors leading to the mythologising of war are beyond human control and questioned whether it was possible to avoid romanticising war. Listening to the questions of other members of the audience was poignant. Dr. Stephen Clarke, Head of Remembrance at the British Legion spoke emotionally of his own experience accompanying veterans to the military cemeteries. Afterwards, he told me in more detail of the shame experienced by former prisoners of war and the emotional support offered to veterans by the British Legion.
Mingling in the Great Hall later, we had our pictures taken with Alistair Stewart who was thoroughly charming and the cause of much hilarity. As we were leaving, Max Arthur approached us, gave me his card and offered to come into school to talk to students about his work as an oral historian and to share those stories given to him by the veterans. Again, there was a buzz in the air as we walked back across Holborn to St Pancras station.
On Tuesday, the Guardian article was published and the issues raised continue to provoke debate within and beyond our school walls. Both Fran Abrams visit and our trip to London have been a stimulus in all my classes this week and a timely reminder of just how good it is to teach and study history. I have been reminded of the power we have as teachers to ignite students’ appetite for learning but also of how important it is to recognise the contribution young people can make to the bigger conversation about what it is to be human.