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Pascal Rossignol

We can’t see the war for the memorials: balancing education and commemoration

One of the key vehicles for communicating the history of the first world war has been the classroom. But in this, the WWI centenary period, have the lines between education and commemoration been distorted?

In Australia the national fervour surrounding the Anzac centenary has made it easy to get lost in the “celebratory” nature of our remembering and this has frequently been at the cost of critical analysis. This was one of the major concerns raised at a public symposium held earlier this year by the University of Newcastle where academics from the UK, Australia and New Zealand debated the issue.

Horace Millichamp Moore-Jones, Private Simpson, D.C.M., & his donkey at Anzac, 1918. AAP

Educators are fighting an uphill battle on two fronts. History, especially Australian history, is widely perceived by high school, and some tertiary, students as “boring”. This is not helped by the fact that the total annual allocation for history education in NSW is approximately 50 hours. In some states and territories that figure may be much lower. And if, to borrow the phrase, young people are being drawn into commemoration as “vessels of memory”, is this a problematic ideal?

In the 21st century, as the living memory of the war fades, new questions arise as to how to teach these cataclysmic events. Yet the dominant popular narratives that crowd the commemorative landscape leave little room to engage with the complex and challenging histories of war.

Images of war weary veterans and heroic stories trade in emotion and empathy, yet this commemoration shuts out cognition and critical remembrance. Now widely perceived to be the stuff of myth, the story of Simpson and his donkey is the common entry point for primary school children learning about WWI. But if empathising with personal stories of war is what draws students in, shouldn’t this then emphasise an obligation to teach “honest histories”, especially at high school level?

Commemoration is in tension with the educational enterprise when it closes down alternative interpretations and perspectives of war and society. Until recently the most significant exclusion in the monolithic white Anzac legend was the role of Indigenous servicemen.

A veteran from Papua New Guinea wears a traditional head dress as he marches in the ANZAC Day march through Sydney, 2016. David Gray

The success of the theatrical production Black Diggers is a welcome example that slowly draws their story into the mainstream, despite forced exclusion of Indigenous service personnel by the authorities in the initial phases of both the First and Second World Wars.

History is one of the most politically divisive fields both in and out of the classroom and the issue of how much weight should be given to war in the teaching of Australian history continues to be hotly contested.

In the official haste to commemorate WWI, are we doing a disservice to those whose memory we are at pains to remember? The recent publication of Bruce Scates’ World War One: A History in 100 Stories (2015) was a bold attempt to redress the popular narrative, this time by highlighting the lives of those irreparably damaged by the events of the conflict.

Many of those individual stories were declined for inclusion in the wider national commemorative programme because they sat outside the traditional framework of heroism and mateship. Yet many who returned from the war were physically or psychologically shattered, and reflected what historian Joan Beaumont considered a “broken nation”.

Critical and reflective ABC documentaries like Lest We Forget What? (2015) and Why Anzac with Sam Neil (2015) have also challenged contemporary mainstream perceptions.

Half a century ago historian Geoffrey Serle coined the phrase “Anzackery” to describe the sentimentality surrounding the popular reception of Anzac. Spurred on by a centenary commemoration budget now in excess of half a billion dollars, the heroic narrative has become an unshakeable article of faith in the national psyche.

Herein lies the root of the conflict between the business of commemorating and education about war and society; an important distinction explored at the University of Newcastle’s public symposium. To quote a popular aphorism, the truth is always the first casualty in war. It requires determination and courage to tell the truth in the face of resolute forgetting.

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