In middle-school history classes, war is almost always at the heart of the matter. It’s natural to frame a nation’s story line on its moments of greatest conflict and change, writes eighth-grade history teacher Dwight Simon in The Smart Set (July 27, 2011), but teachers might be doing students and society a disservice by glorifying and even perpetuating violence as a redemptive force. “In how we teach war—indeed, in trying to justify our fascination with war—we have perhaps tried too hard to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice,” he argues.
Simon had long relied on the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War as a way to frame the arc of U.S. history. Then he read historian and Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s critique of America’s love affair with war. “Imagine the knotting of stomach and tightening of chest” for a teacher of wars, writes Simon. “Faust’s scholarship forces historians into the uncomfortable work of reassessing their assumptions about war [and] how war stories are told.”
Simon charged himself with the task of infusing his course syllabus at Epiphany School in Dorchester, Massachusetts, with greater attention to the pain, torture, and death that accompany combat. New lesson plans highlighted six- and seven-figure casualty statistics, photographs of the dead strewn across battlefields, and soldiers’ personal narratives reflecting an ambiguous or negative perspective of war’s worth.
In presenting a multifold vision rather than always emphasizing “war’s noble purpose, its grand narrative,” Simon writes, he “really just hoped for some existential angst” among his students. It’s a good guess that the unsentimental stories will temper the idolatry of violence in a few young minds.
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.