Education and Military History

I’ve always been mystified about the near total exclusion of military history from history teaching in schools. I’ve never managed to work out exactly where it comes from, but my guess is that somewhere along the lines a liberal assumption took hold that teaching young people about wars and fighting would encourage them to fight each other. Bizarre, in the least. But so it remained for some time. And especially while I was at school – we only learnt about wars though abstract means – in medicine through time, for example, we learnt how wars speed-up medical advances. Even then, the emphasis was on ‘progress’.

But I have noticed something of a shift in recent years. Perhaps it is the passing of the last WW1 veterans, and the ever-decreasing number of WW2 veterans, that has brought home to society that when participants pass on, memory becomes history. I also suspect that the high profile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed how people think about the armed forces and war.

There have been great changes in Education too. Its no longer enough to simply visit a museum and herd kids round. Many museums offer more focused workshop sessions. HMS Belfast even lets school groups sleep onboard overnight for the ‘at sea’ experience. Its important to constantly look for new and interesting ways of engaging young people. I spent some time working with groups of young people in an informal setting, and I really think that approach works for military history. No ‘this is what you will learn, blah blah…’ – it has to be enjoyable and interesting, and relevant to the people you are trying to teach. If you enjoy yourself, you are more receptive, whereas if you feel you are being lectured against your will, you subconsciously put up barriers. I’ve always thought that history should be taught out and about, and using objects, clothes, and other ‘hooks’.

One of the best education projects I have come across is the Discovering D-Day Project. OK, I might be a bit biased, as I work for the Service that runs the D-Day Museum. But I have been so impressed with some of the work that the project has brought out. The project involves tailored study days at the D-Day Museum for schools and youth groups, an opportunity to meet WW2 veterans, handling WW2 related objects, and using mobile phone technology to take photographs. The sessions can be based on History, Maths or English, for example. All of the evidence suggests that it has been a major success. It’s helped the Museum attract a completely new age range – in particular teenagers.

Take a look at some of these quotes:

‘I enjoyed today because it was fun and enjoyable to see these things instead of having to read from the books that are provided in schools. You get to see from the veterans’ side what it was like. Amazing trip!’ – Year 10 pupil

‘[The students]… enjoyed talking to the veterans so much they chose to talk to them through lunch!’ – Key Stage 4 Teacher

‘Pupils who have participated in the project have articulated its success with insight, commenting on how they had been inspired to work harder, to reach targets and to see themselves as independent learners preparing for a world beyond school.’ – Claire Austin-Macrae Regional Adviser (Functional Skills)

I cannot help but be impressed by the group of young people who wanted to skip lunch so they could keep talking to the veterans. And not only do the sessions seem to have been fun, but there have been some major improvements in grades, in particular with young people who were previously underachieving. I can remember watching a veteran give a reading of a Poem written by a School pupil, from the perspective of a soldier landing on D-Day. Very moving, and exactly the kind of thing education and military should be about.

And its not just school groups either – some of the youth groups who have taken part have produced some artwork that I would be perfectly happy to use as publicity images or book covers.

Just one example of how to ‘do’ military history with young people.



Filed under education, Museums, World War Two

19 responses to “Education and Military History

  1. A method I’ve personally seen great success with is the arena of military re-enacting, specifically World War 2. While I have to admit personal bias, having been a re-enactor for several years, I did see a number of kids getting involved in learning, asking questions and expressing honest interest in how the soldiers lived in the field. Their interest was especially noticeable in the non-U.S. camps, as history in American schools tends to ignore or minimalise the other Allied powers. Most of the questions I answered came, not surprisingly, when I portrayed a German infantryman. Too often, modern education equates German with Nazi, and therefore all facts related to the German military are racist and anti-Semitic. It was refreshing to talk to children, and especially teens, and show them that there is more to history than Hollywood and vague generalisations in over-simplified history texts.

    • x

      Modern history teaching in the UK is centred on arm-band politics at secondary level. And at the tertiary level it is all about “the other.” So anti-Semitism is a big deal. In fact persecution of minorities is all the kids want to write about. Popular? No. It is all they have been exposed too.

    • x

      Of course here in the UK we have 3 cadet “forces” too. The two MoD organisations, the Army Cadet Force and Air Training Corps, and then the partly MoD sponsored and partly charity based Sea Cadet Corps. (There are also various naval cadet organisations associated with major naval bases, but these will just complicate matters.) Universities have MoD sponsored units for all three services similar to your ROTCs.

      • James Daly

        I’m not sure how great the various Cadet organisations are at ‘doing’ military history. I’ve seen plenty of cadet groups being herded round museums looking bored stiff. And I can also recall talking to URNU students who didnt have a clue about Fisher, Jellicoe or Beatty. I get the feeling that there is a ‘you WILL learn the ethos of the regiment/service/corps’, accompanied by the beating of a pace stick. It needs to be more subtle, and more by osmosis than force.

        • x

          I was continuing what John E said about re-enacting.

          SCC Marine cadets used to do a bit of history as their advancement is dependent on them knowing certain Corp’s anniversaries.

          The last time I organised a week for cadets in Portsmouth I had a history day; Fort Nelson, Warrior, and CinC’s flagship (aka HMS Victory.) It went off OK-ish. In Warrior we even had cadets in hammocks! We “did” RM Museum on another day.

          TBH I don’t think kids are interested in much these days. Or should that be interest in our own culture or history? I think any importance attached to general knowledge has been in decline since the ’70s. As teachers have devalued our culture they have, either by design or convenience, filled the vacuum with pop-culture and self-expression.

          • Well, we had an unfair advantage. Our German and British units re-enacted with an American group that had 2 light tanks, a halftrack, and a number of wheeled vehicles; and a German unit that had a tank destroyer and 1 or 2 halftracks (memory fails me at the moment). Hardware always gets the kids’ attention!

  2. x

    A bit off topic (well to the side) what do you make of “Action Stations”?

    (I am impressed with what they have done to the building. Especially the “theatre in the pod” at the back.)

    • James Daly

      I went for the first time a few months ago, I enjoyed it a lot. Me and my brother (27 and 24 respectively!) had a great time, its not just for kids!

      • x

        I liked it. I think it needs a bit more of something, but I don’t know. If I get to Pompey next year I will give it another look over if I am there in the week (sans too many small peoples.)

        • James Daly

          yeah I hear ya, the style is there but the substance isnt quite. Theres lots of fun stuff but it could do with something else, not sure what though lol

  3. Can I be a dense Yank and ask for an explanation of what “Action Stations” is?

  4. James Daly

    John, its this place here, in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard:

    • x

      Yes there is a picture of the interior of theatre I was on about………

      I am looking on the website for but can’t find anything about the building it self. Of course not is historic…..;)

  5. I don’t know what you’d call it – it isn’t a museum on the old fashioned sense.

  6. James Daly

    I think it was a deliberate project, in that the Historic Dockyard already had the three historic ships, the RN Museum, Mary Rose Museum and the Dockyard Apprentice Exhibition. All very interesting, but it needed something good for the little ‘uns and that also does a good job of promoting the modern Navy in action.

    • x

      If you miss the Mary Rose while the new building is under construction I can always borrow a camera and photograph a damp piece of wood for you. You only have to ask…… 🙂

  7. x

    Of course the other thing we should consider are all those video games like the Call of Duty series. How do these shape the perceptions of young mind when it comes to war?

    • Again, from a purely Yank point of view, the US Army has actually tried to use video games to help recruit. The even brought out their own game a couple years back, available through the Army.Mil website. Unfortunately, they learned that you don’t hire a baker to build a house, and gave up on their in-house design. I don’t know if they’re officially endorsing any particular series, though most recruiters I’ve talked to are trained to understand how each game works and how to “spin” their presentations accordingly. The Army has also designed parts of its’ website to look like some of the displays of some of these games. (Gee, can you tell I’m not from the XBox/Wii/Gameboy generation?)

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