War Remembrance as an Educational Moment

David Aldridge is Principal Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of Impact 21: How ought war to be remembered in schools.


In 2012 the Prime Minister David Cameron announced at the Imperial War Museum a period of heightened activity to mark the centenary commemorations of the events of the First World War. One notable feature of his address was the significant proportion of planned expenditure that was to be directed towards educational activities. This reminds us of an important element of our remembrance of war: it is an essentially educational moment. The meaning of the term ‘remembrance’, when we use it in relation to the world wars of the twentieth century, is not obvious or unproblematic. Remembrance is of events in most cases not experienced first-hand, so that it in fact constitutes at least in part a reminding by some party of particular events or persons that it is considered important that they and others continue to remember and pass on. In the case of teaching young people, remembrance must involve communicating the content that is to be remembered.

Furthermore, there is a moral component to this. We encourage children to remember because they ought to, and the significance of this ‘ought’ is not simply that it will be for their own good (in much the same way that we say that they ought to look and listen before they cross the road) but also because they have some duty to do so. This means that communicating the content of remembrance will also involve encouraging certain sentiments towards that content. We remember for a reason.

In light of these considerations, it is somewhat surprising that there has not been more debate about the part that schools and other educational institutions specifically have to play in the centenary commemorations. As the first year of these commemorations comes to a close, and particularly in the wake of this year’s Armistice Day commemorations, we can hardly deny that there exist a number of open questions around remembrance. Does the symbol of the poppy do more to romanticise warfare than bring home its horror? Are there elements of public commemorative acts that sanitise, or even glorify past conflicts? To what extent should celebration of military victories be incorporated into public events of remembrance? Are these events inclusive, or do they in fact exclude the memory of those who fought and died on the losing side, or those who were unwilling civilian or ‘collateral’ victims of conflict?

There exist conflicting and reasonable perspectives on all of these questions, and we can hardly anticipate that these debates will be resolved any time soon in the public sphere. In my recently published pamphlet, I do not make an attempt to resolve these questions so much as engage with the educational implications of the fact that there is this reasonable and unresolved disagreement. Where there exists reasonable opposition on both sides of an issue, we cannot teach that issue as if there is not. This, I think, is the danger surrounding the involvement of educational institutions in the public event of remembrance. Rather than treating the event as a moment whose nature, purpose and justification are persuasively contested, the temptation might be to treat the importance of remembrance, and its purposes, as a ‘given’.

It is the social fact that there is a well-established ‘season’ of remembrance that makes this unlike other curriculum issues. History educators have long acknowledged that there is a normative component to the teaching of history: we study some events and not others, and this involves value judgements about which events in our history are more significant than others. There is also already space in the curriculum in which questions about war - its meaning, justification, and necessity - can be addressed, in nuanced ways that do justice to the complexity and ambiguity of the subject matter. I am thinking of English, history and religious education in particular. However, the public preoccupation with remembrance on and around November 11th (and perhaps throughout the centenary commemorations) means that, at this time in particular, the educational treatment of questions around conflict and the sacrifice of the war dead will interact with a variety of public narratives, images and symbols that encourage certain sentiments. Educators need to consider whether by encouraging participation in the public event of remembrance we are also endorsing sentiments towards the war dead whose justification or appropriateness is an open question.

In my pamphlet I consider three justifications that are often advanced for involving children in the event of remembrance. I argue that while bringing home the horror of war, so that we might encourage children to avoid or condemn unnecessary conflicts in future, is a justification that all reasonable parties should accept, there are reasonable objections that might be raised to the claims that we ought to encourage children to remember because they owe a debt of gratitude to the war dead, or because it will encourage children to uphold values that they share with those who gave their lives. I also question the widespread presence of remembrance charities in educational institutions, and consider whether the invocation of that global brand icon, the poppy, makes it more or less difficult for children to reflect critically on questions about the meaning and justification of conflict. I hope that the pamphlet will serve to encourage further debate, as the centenary commemorations continue, about the distinctively educational elements of remembrance, and the part that schools should play in bringing remembrance into question.

-David Aldridge, Oxford Brookes University