Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Teaching History Means Teaching War

by Will Wlizlo


Tags: education, war, history, Civil War, teaching, moral complexity, The Smart Set, mind and body, Will Wlizlo,

history-of-war“Of all the epochs, events, and ideas we could study, war seems to grab a disproportionately large chunk of time in many classrooms around the country,” writes The Smart Set’s Dwight Simon, who’s also an eighth-grade history teacher at Epiphany School in Boston. “If violence truly is the spirituality of our society, then, I fear that we as teachers and students of history have become its theologians.”

Over the past few years of teaching, Simon noticed an unsettling trend, one that may belie a still-developing generation of war apologists-to-be. “[M]ore voices in my classroom are willing to speak up for war’s noble purpose,” Simon observes,

its grand narrative, all-too-comfortably calculating away six- and seven-figure body counts, factoring away numerous tales of suffering, and rearranging variables to conclude that the end justifies the means, the sum is somehow greater than the piles of bodies and body parts. Out of violence comes redemption.

Not comfortable with his students’ one-sided approach to history, Simon tried to rearrange his curriculum and more explicitly teach the moral complexities of war.

The handout I eventually distributed—a proud achievement, I thought—included a quick-fire compendium of devastating statistics and provocative reflections from soldiers, the enslaved, and observers of all kinds, alongside several grim photographs of Civil War battlefield dead. At the end, I asked students to reflect: “Was the war worth it?”

And after being subjected to a wholly different lesson plan, what did Simon’s students think of the Civil War? A resounding “the war was worth it.”

Altogether though, Simon isn’t too upset that his students came to the same judgment via a different path:

Had I hoped they would answer in the opposite? Perhaps, but I had really just hoped for some existential angst, a bit of tossing and turning or lost sleep. I hoped only that we might pause for a moment, overcome by the complexity of it all. In some sense, though, I was proud of the sophistication my students offered in response. Several students reasoned that the death, suffering, and torment of enslaved peoples across the centuries in America far outweighed any statistics that could be produced by just four years of war between North and South. It was, they seemed to argue, a small price to pay for the abolition of such a wicked institution.

Source: The Smart Set 

Image by David Masters, licensed under Creative Commons.