HM - Sept. 2013 - Brick

Thoughts on the History of War and Culture
by Christopher Brick
Editor, the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

Seated at my desk a few weeks ago I began rifling through the most recent edition of a history magazine, found my way to its “Letters to the Editor” page, and was distressed to find the musings of a teacher eager to turn back the clock on primary- and secondary-level history education. The basic gist of his piece was that students dislike learning about the past because standard curricula place far too much emphasis on socio-cultural themes, and not enough on those that actually excite young learners, politico-military ones especially. The contemporary classroom would be better served, the author maintained, if textbooks and the historians who write them reoriented their focus back to the actions of kings, presidents, prime ministers, and the wars they have waged against one another across time and place.

Though the letter never rises to the level of a screed, and is careful to include a perfunctory nod to the relevancy of non-military subjects, it also dismisses these as insufficiently captivating to an audience already unrenowned for its attention span: millennial teenagers, many of whom, (it is suggested), seem inclined to think of “history” only as some grim dark age that predated the advent of Spotify and the iPhone. Soon, one might think, it will be necessary to teach the entire survey in micro-bursts of 140 characters or less, and to restrict all communication with students to that which can be prefaced with a hashtag. To summarize: #HistoryTeacherProblems.

            While my own experience with students has never set off this particular alarm, my earliest years as a student might well suggest the danger of dismissing it outright. As a fourth-grader, I can still remember the first time a work of history absorbed me completely, and it was—predictably—about a war.  It was not a book, but rather an extended article on the history of World War II that appeared in an old-fashioned series of bound encyclopedias long ago rendered obsolete by Wikipedia. Since it was encyclopedic, the account I read that morning could not have been especially literary or dramatic in its presentation. Still, it was riveting, and perhaps this is what the author I paraphrased above was trying to communicate. World War II may well be the most transformative event in world history—a conflagration so vast in scale and consequence, so replete with human interest and tragedy, that even a very incompetent storyteller would have a hard time making it dull. It is compelling material, and it energizes students. No argument here.

Rather, my objection to this particular teacher’s case for military history stems less from his suggestion that it is intrinsically fascinating to students—it may well be—than the underlying assumption, reiterated throughout his letter, that social and cultural history are somehow disconnected from the study of war, or irrelevant to it altogether. Nothing, in my view, could evince a more distorted or unfortunate assessment of either. Can the Crusades really be explained without reference to the religious culture of medieval Europe? Can the Civil War really be comprehensible without a basic grasp of nineteenth-century race relations, white supremacy, or the Southern “way of life” that gave impetus to the Confederacy? I suspect there are few who would answer yes to either question, and fewer still who would have an easy time sustaining their recalcitrance for very long if pressed. Would they be able, for example, to discern the strategic purpose of Operation Barbarossa—an enormous blunder for the Third Reich from which it never recovered—without touching on Nazi aspirations for Lebensraum in the east and the anti-Semitic worldview that lay behind it? I suspect not. It would be equally impossible to navigate someone through the Boer Wars without considering British views of empire in the late nineteenth century, or to make sense of the American experience in Korea and Vietnam without any mention of the attitude toward communism that prevailed in the United States in the middle of the twentieth. Armed conflict has been endemic enough to human culture and society that their respective histories, rather than separable, underscore the degree to which they are bound up in one another, and I can see no reason why the classroom should not be a place that lays bare these interconnections as well.

 Indeed, one of the most prominent themes that I have emphasized in my own lecturing at NCHE colloquia is the need to push past methodological separatism of all kinds, and I could not help but hope that this particular teacher might have evaluated the merits of social and cultural history differently had he experienced one of these workshops for himself. War was not much on the agenda at a recent session on the interwar period that was hosted by the Carter Center in Atlanta, but neither was a military topic needed to call attention to the same pitfalls of distortion and inaccuracy that occur when one interpretive framework is favored too heavily over another. Some of the most reliable offenders in this regard are the textbooks themselves, which often juxtapose the colorful popular culture of the 1920s—think flappers, bathtub gin, and all that jazz—against the somber political culture of the 1930s—think breadlines, alphabet agencies, and sit-down strikes. While such an approach helps to create a sense of transition, a more truthful representation of the past can be glimpsed when we look not just for change over time, but continuity as well.

In Atlanta, I used the history of Depression-era relief policy to make this point. I began by calling attention to the masculine imagery that loomed so large in the visual culture of New Deal liberalism, and then used such imagery as an entry point into a broader discussion of the myriad ways in which the Roosevelt administration crafted relief policy to preserve traditional social arrangements—like male breadwinning—rather than to modernize them. Challenging students to reconcile complicated realities like this one with the flattened stereotypes that textbooks offer them all too often instead is both a rewarding exercise, and, (at least in my experience), one that does not require a war story to pique their interest—or, for that matter, a hashtag.