Ninety Years

At eleven o’clock this morning, the class I was teaching paused for two minutes of silence. Actually, it was a couple of minutes after eleven, because it took a couple of minutes to achieve silence. Thus while we were being silent, there was noise around us. There was no bell to indicate the time so that everyone was in synch.

Even though Year 9s cover the Great War in history, it is not until the summer term. The Year 9s I was teaching didn’t even have the benefit of knowledge to help them grasp the significance that we were observing the moment that exactly ninety years before has seen the end of the most devastating war up to that time.

When I was growing up in the States, we didn’t think much about that war. But then the US lost a mere 116,708 soldiers with 205,690 wounded. That may sound like a lot, until you realise that the UK with half the population at the time lost 994,138 with 1,663,435 wounded, it puts it into perspective. That’s why there is a war memorial in every village in the UK. They were engraved with the names of local boys lost in First World War with most of them amended with a smaller list from the Second.

Though my pupils sat through a Remembrance Day assembly a couple of hours before, it focused on those who served in all wars since 1918. Ninety years is a long time, after all. Most of my students don’t know who their great-grandparents (or reaching back to WWI, often great-great-grandparents) were, not to mention whether they took the King’s Shilling in the Great War. I doubt that even one of them remembered somebody during that 120 seconds at eleven o’clock who served in the War to End All Wars. It might as well have been the Wars of the Roses – history with no connection to the present. History only for the historians.

May enough people continue to care so their memory might be eternal.

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History That Matters

I’m covering American involvement in the First World War with my Year 10s. Thursday I was showing a map of Europe in 1914 to demonstrate the changes in boundaries after the War (particularly as they relate to Wilson’s 14 Points) when I drifted over to the Ottoman Empire. I explained how all the countries in Middle East – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and what would eventually become Israel – were all created out of the break up of the Ottoman Empire after the war.

Then, speaking of the Ottoman Turks, I mentioned the Armenian Genocide. At that point I reached a crossroads: I could either get back to the lesson plan, the scheme of work, and the exam syllabus, or I could give substantive time to the horrors of 1915. Modern pedagogy said to stick to the syllabus. If it’s not on the exam, they don’t need to know it. Teach the exam. Obviously, I went the other way. Two hours the other way.

None of my students will remember the 14 Points in five years time. Don’t get me wrong – they are still going to learn them and about the Lodge Reservations and how it all relates to Isolationism of the 1920s. But they won’t remember. However, if they learn about the Genocide – if they see the pictures and read about the atrocities – they may remember it.

But more importantly, they may leave school with an understanding of the sort of place the world is. They may appreciate the place they have found themselves in time and space and what a valuable thing it is to live in a peaceful corner of the world. Later they will learn about the Jewish Holocaust – you can’t get out of school without learning about that – but now they will understand that this isn’t just a thing that happened to Jews during the Second World War. It happens to Christians and it continues to this day in both the Genocide denial of the Turks and the systematic obliteration of the Armenian past in eastern Anatolia.

I may not have time or opportunity to cover the Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932-33 or Cambodia or Bosnia or Rwanda, but I can a least do my part to see that the Armenians are not forgotten. If I can inspire one student to aspire to see that others are not forgotten, I will have done something worthwhile.