A few years ago, my then four-year-old daughter came home from preschool wanting to know who the soldiers were and why they died.
As a history teacher for nearly two decades, I thought I had it covered. This was my moment to shine as a parent and educator. Unfortunately, I had grossly overestimated my capabilities. I found myself stumbling over explanations and unable to find the words. Anyone who has tried knows it’s nearly impossible to describe to a four-year-old the machinations of war in a non-terrifying way. How would I unpack the complex cultural participation in commemorations? I resorted to telling her:
I’ll explain it when you’re older.
I know, I know, shame on me.
But it got me thinking about how we position our students to engage meaningfully with wartime narratives and commemorations. I think we’re missing valuable opportunities to teach students how to critically evaluate memorialisation as a historical artefact. This deserves our attention because artefacts embody the ideological value systems of the community that create it and the society that, 100 years later, continues to use and observe it. In critiquing Remembrance Day, students will likely learn a great deal about the social and political customs of their own community.
How do schools now participate in commemoration?
What happens now is fairly straightforward. Schools will consult a website such as the Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs to find a runsheet. Students will be organised to speak, taking heed of the advice for the commemorative address to “highlight the service and sacrifice of men and women in all conflicts”. A wreath may be purchased, a minute’s silence will be observed, and a recording of The Last Post and The Rouse and the Reveille will be played.
The concern is that uncritical engagement in the social act of commemoration is creating generations of historical tourists. These “tourists” are not enabled to understand that memorials and commemorative services are interpretations of the past, or that such services are a representation of how present-day society believes it should interact with that past. They simply pass through without understanding the full context. Asking pupils to organise and participate in a commemorative event, or providing red paper to make poppies, will not help students develop capacity to recognise that memorial sites and the framing of historical narratives are responses to the context of the time they were created.
Why is this important?
Memorials and commemorative services use rhetoric that speaks to national identities. Political leaders are adept at using these monuments, ceremonies and rhetoric to respond to current social anxieties in a way that often creates further divisions.
As historical tourists attending commemorative services, students (and the adults they grow into) are at risk of accepting without question nationalistic and political agendas that may not be in their best interests. I want my students and pre-service teachers to recognise the political, social, and economic factors that influence how a society conducts and participates in memorialisation of the past. Recognising and understanding this influence leads to active and proactive citizenship.
Preparing our students
How can teachers best prepare primary and secondary school students to think critically about memorialisation? Here is some sound advice from around the globe.