One thing I’m intrigued to watch during the First World War and Anzac centenaries is how the war is taught in schools. Especially in the context of new curricula in England and Australia, will the 2014-2018 centenary invigorate or enervate (or distort?) learning about the conflict? In May, Ann-Marie Einhaus and Catriona Pennell released their excellent report The First World War in the Classroom, which considers this and other questions in the context of England. As a researcher keen on public engagement, I was particularly interested in Einhaus and Pennell’s observation that while many resources incorporating the latest academic research are now freely available, a challenge for time-pressed teachers is to find their way amongst them: “Participants in our focus groups voiced concerns about the sheer range and wealth of sources as overwhelming”. I was therefore eager to read the latest addition to The Guardian’s “How to teach…” series, How to teach… the first world war by Alex Ogg.
Ogg’s piece is a handy roundup of both traditional and newer literary and historical resources, mostly British, for teaching the First World War. But it also contains something of a gendered sting.
Ogg draws attention to the British Library’s collection of First World War sources and expert articles, including Susan Grayzel’s Changing lives: gender expectations and roles during and after World War One. This piece, Ogg suggests, will be “especially helpful if the girls in your class aren’t as excited by military hardware as the boys.”
Now, I’m not a teacher trying to motivate 30 or so teenagers towards concentration, but oh, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard some variation on the comment, “You study war history? Like actual battles? But you’re a girl!” From conversations with my many women colleagues, especially those taking a primarily military-political approach rather than a social-cultural one, I know this is far too common.
Thankfully, I never heard it – either explicitly or implicitly – from any of my wonderful, influential History and English teachers. They approached their subjects as stories of human experience, and we as students were simply interested in what we were interested in (hopefully we were interested in something). I was interested in war history: causes, courses and consequences.
I don’t think Ogg means to seriously suggest that guns are for boys and gender is for girls in the First World War classroom (or that gender during and after the war had nothing whatsoever to do with men). The line seems more of a tongue-in-cheek one in an engaging piece that also pokes fun at Michael Gove (what else from The Guardian?) and references Rihanna.
Still, surely even a hint that girls won’t – or can’t, or shouldn’t – be interested in the events of battlefields is a wink and a nudge too far in 2014.
 Ann-Marie Einhaus and Catriona Pennell, The First World War in the Classroom: Teaching and the Construction of Cultural Memory Final Project Report, May 2014 http://ww1intheclassroom.exeter.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/FWW-in-the-Classroom-final-project-report.pdf [Accessed 22 July 2014], p. 72.