Why not teach about war? We’re fighting two right now…

Today’s Doonesbury cartoon made a powerful impression on me, and reminded me that 10-year-old students today, who were born after 9/11/01, have probably not learned very much about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — wars that we’ve been fighting for their entire lives.

The situation is different, of course, for those who have a family member serving overseas.

But even then, as the Doonesbury cartoon points out, it’s easy to forget about folks overseas when we get caught up in our daily lives.

Today’s Doonesbury strip (if you have not viewed it yet, click this link) consists largely of this exchange between a sister and her brother.  The sister is calling the brother because they have not spoken in a while:

Sister: Hi Justin, it’s me.
Brother: Mel! What’s going on?
Sister: Just checking in. Hadn’t heard from anyone in a while.
Brother: Oh, hey, my bad sis — I’ve just been jammed … the kids all got the flu, and I had to stay home from work… plus both Chris and Allie are playing hockey, so we’ve been spending every weekend on the road.
Sister: Sounds crazy.
Brother: Yeah, it has been.  So where you calling from?
Sister: Afghanistan (she’s in military fatigues).
Brother: Oh right, right… Wait, we’re still there? 

The cartoon opens with the sister not receiving any mail in Afghanistan, so she decides to take the initiative to call home. She goes to a bank of phones made available to troops.

What I love about Doonesbury and his coverage of the war is the amount of research he does.  He knows what’s going on in Afghanistan and he knows what a call center looks like.

Here’s the panel from his cartoon where the sister is calling home:

And here’s a picture of an actual call center — this one is from Kuwait, but it was the first one I was able to find doing a quick web search and I imagine the ones in Afghanistan look about the same:

Should middle school students be learning to empathize with the soldiers who are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere around the world? Should they try to get a sense of how important a letter from home is to the troops serving?

I think they should. And our students should also be having difficult ethical discussions about what constitutes a just war, and when the US is justified in sending troops into harm’s way.

At Triangle Learning Community, a middle school for empathetic global citizenship opening in fall 2013 in Durham, NC, we will discuss such issues.

But we won’t do what most schools do when they pretend to cover “current events.” We will not discuss the war for a few minutes one day and then go back to the regularly scheduled program. These wars are complicated and take time to unpack.

If we decide to study one of these wars, we will make time for an in-depth study, and we will study it for a month or so. When we do so, we will consult primary sources and seek to put the war in historical context.

We will talk via Skype with soldiers in the field; we will visit veterans who are recovering at the VA Hospital across the street from Duke Hospital (or at least talk with doctors who treat veterans); we will read essays about the war from a variety of perspectives (including international perspectives).

At the end of the study, each student (and each teacher — though we call teachers “learning facilitators”) will produce an artifact — a poem, a short video, a collage — that communicates what he/she has learned. And these artifacts will be displayed on our school web page, so that people can see an example of how students can learn as they engage the world. They will learn research skills, interview skills, public speaking skills, writing, history, culture, web design — and several more skills they would need in order to complete a thoughtful project that captures what they have learned in a month of thoughtful study.

When I was teaching students about ancient history (the 9th grade curriculum went from pre-history to 1500), I’d occasionally sneak in current events for half a period or so.  When I did, several students came to life and wanted to learn more. When confronted with real events going on NOW, they acted quite differently than when they were required to learn about some aspect of Julius Caesar’s life that I was going to test them on later.

That discrepancy may be a failing on my part as a teacher… perhaps I could have made Caesar more compelling… but I don’t think so. Students want to know about the world they live in today, and we do them a disservice by not devoting time and space to talk about big hairy issues such as the wars we’ve been fighting for the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq.

WHY aren’t we talking about these issues??

And I’m not talking about converting students to one position or another on the issue.  I’m talking about having civil conversations that present lots of perspectives in a balanced way (because reasonable people disagree about what we should do — they just tend to scream at each other in our media).

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have to be some of the most crucial topics facing our world today. I mean, can you think of a more important topic than the decision about when — and in what circumstances — the world’s most powerful military should wage war?

And once war is waged, what are the consequences? What is the cost? How do you measure the cost of a war? What does the “end” of a war look like? How do we treat veterans? And from whose perspective do/should we view these wars?

So remind me again why we aren’t teaching this stuff?

Oh, right — it’s not on the end-of-grade test, is it?

We need a new approach to education — one that recognizes that many middle school students (and nearly all high school students) are capable of in-depth discussions about the things that matter to them in today’s world.

We should help expand students’ world view and then give them a chance to pursue a topic they are passionate about for several months — imagine how much they’d learn.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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3 Responses to Why not teach about war? We’re fighting two right now…

  1. bcurran812 says:

    One of the things you’ve helped me to learn is that in the “unpacking” you end up covering so many content areas. This isn’t just a social studies activity. Current events involve reading, writing, and a great deal of math, too. It’s truly cross curricular.

  2. Mr.Waghorne says:

    Great post, thanks for the great motivation

  3. Pingback: CHANGEd: What if we taught history backwards or offered “war and peace” course? 60-60-60 #42 « It's About Learning

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