Remembrance Sunday and History teaching

So what do we mean when we say  ‘Lest we forget?’

This isn’t a simple question. You remember your times tables. I remember the birthdays of my children as easily as I remember my own birthday.

But when we talk of war, this isn’t my experience, thankfully. I am not remembering a tour in Afghanistan or time in the trenches.

In one sense, ‘Lest we forget’ means to me today, a gratefulness for those who do put themselves in harm’s way, when I have not had to do this.

Services of remembrance though, like funerals, are for the living. There are histories of remembrance, but here is what I remember about how remembrance has changed over the last 50 years.

When I was a child,  remembrance in schools was powerful, in part because First World War veterans were still alive and spoke out. Otto Frank came to my school and spoke in an assembly. Unforgettable.

But in the early years of my time as a History teacher, some of the traditions, such as the two minute silence at 11 minutes past the hour at 11 on the 11th of November, began to fade. The most important reason why they faded was probably that after the Falklands, times were more peaceful. I think we should acknowledge that one reason why remembrance has become so important once again, is because the 21st century has begun so violently. This did not mean, though, that the First World War left the History curriculum. How we study the First World War has changed though, and there are good reasons for this.

I do worry that remembrance traditions, so necessary when we have people currently ‘in harm’s way’, can become confused with what we want children to remember from our History lessons.

What is memorable depends on what we find to be significant, in the present. This changes over time, and also depends on who we are, and the questions we ask about the past. The content and character of an historical education is therefore a mutable thing.

The sounding of the Last Post moves me, as I am sure it moves you.

But tomorrow, I go back to the drawing board in thinking about how we should teach children to remember the past. I intend to do that every Monday morning until I retire. Traditions are important, and they can be very memorable. But it is not wise to let them define what we should ‘remember’.


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