University of New Brunswick
I recently had the opportunity to attend a public lecture sponsored by the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, held at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, on October 15. Guest speaker was Alan Sears, PhD, Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick, and member of the Executive Board of THEN/HiER. His presentation was entitled “Battle Lines in the Schools: Teaching the History of War and Society for the Common Good”.
This was the first in a series of public lectures, hosted each fall by the Gregg Center. Sears seemed happily in his element, as he challenged the audience to reconsider their own pre-conceived beliefs about why teach students about War.
Harkening back to the History Wars of nearly 20 years ago, Sears commenced by outlining how the “what” of history has long been a point of contention in many countries (including Canada), particularly when it comes to War. Rather than obsessing about what narrative would be “good” for students, Sears argued, our efforts are better spent focussing upon the “how” behind such narratives. In this way, he reasoned, the “competing visions” of War can provide ample opportunities for engaging students in the on-going heated debates that are central to any democracy.
Sears described the "Battle Lines" of teaching about War as drawn between two extremities. On one side stands the “three cheers” approach to history education, epitomised by J.L. Granatstein’s (1998) highly controversial polemic, Who Killed Canadian History, which positions War as front and centre in nation-building. On the other side, stands the “social cohesion” approach to history education, exemplified by Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel’s (2008) two volume History of the Canadian People, in which War takes a back seat to other social factions.
Why teach the history of War in the classroom? Sears responded to this question with four clearly articulated reasons as to why NOT. We should not, he said, teach about War in order to simply:
- Create historians or students of history;
- Foster love of nation;
- Imagine a nation that should have been;
- Commemorate the fallen.
Alternatively, Sears challenged the audience to consider War as an educational tool for engaging students in the messiness of democratic ideals. In this sense, he explained, the debates can remain ever fluid, ever contested, ever open to an expanded view of humanity.
Indeed, much of Sear’s theoretical argument has been outlined within his chapter in the publication New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada (2011). For this reason, as a preface to listening to his lecture, I’d recommend that you read his chapter, in order to gain a fuller understanding of how Sears has aligned Historical Thinking with Citizenship Education. Drawing heavily from the Common Good paradigm of Keith Barton and Linda Levstick (2008), Sears has argued that history and citizenship work hand-in-hand, fostering democracies that are “participatory, pluralistic, and deliberative” (p. 355). These principles of citizenship education lingered within his lecture of October 15.
After having torn down the aforementioned political reasons for teaching about War, Sears brought his audience back to the central question: Why teach the history of War and society in the classroom?
To this, he presented 7 bold reasons as to why the topic of War can contribute to a student’s vision of a common good:
- It is significant: Because War has impacted so many people, in so many different ways, and continues to be a threat to the safety and wellbeing of so many people worldwide, its’ role in past, present, and future cannot be ignored;
- It is iconic: The timelessness of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ transcends all social, political and pedagogical barriers. Regardless of one’s own beliefs, the profundity of War can make for a highly effective learning opportunity;
- It is contested: The battle lines that have been drawn around the teaching of War, are, in themselves, a good thing. This is because the contentious nature of War actually enables students to be actively engaged in deliberations that are characteristic of any democratic society;
- It is multilayered and complex: The history of War can (and should) be approached from many different angles and historiographical positions. In this way, the topic is never one-dimensional, and there are never any easy answers;
- It takes us beyond ourselves: It is important to remember that Canada was part of an alliance of nations. War involves individuals acting within the broader context of many people, many nations, and many political fronts;
- It is accessible: War touches upon local communities and local history, so it provides an effective way of placing localities within the broader context of world events;
- It is unfinished: The study of War enables students to participate in historical questions that are not already answered. War is constantly open to re-examination, as new sources of evidence become available to the classroom, and as world events impact our perspective upon the past.
A full recording of Professor Sears’ one-hour lecture can be found here: