How to talk about wars in the classroom

Gemma Tribˇ
Lecturer in the didactics of social sciences at the University of Barcelona

Gemma Tribó

Education for peace highlights the importance of talking about wars in history classrooms in order to help children learn to think historically, to acquire historical awareness and to raise their awareness in support of peaceful values in the resolution of disputes.

In our world that is so complex and diverse, thinking historically means providing children with intellectual, cognitive and emotional tools so that through their understanding of historical time they can understand the ethical tension that exists between the past, the present and the future and thereby learn to place their personal time within social time and this within the historical time that is shared by all humanity.    In other words, it is about children becoming aware that the past has determined our present and that present individual and collective actions will influence the future of humankind.

To educate for peace it is necessary to talk about wars, and even today in history classrooms there is little talk about the wars of the 20th Century.  A preliminary issue is that we should be able to take the following actions in classrooms, which summarise the thoughts of several authors (A. Bastida, R. Grasa, P. Cascón etc.).

  • Get rid of the taboo about wars and talk about them openly in order to educate for peace.
  • Analyse the causes of wars, especially of the Spanish Civil War.
  • Evaluate the consequences and the impact of armed conflicts.
  • Present non-violent channels for the solution of disputes using a social-affective methodology.

In order to avoid wars it is necessary to acknowledge them, explain their futility and the suffering that they cause and never forget that in the 20th Century, between the two World Wars and the Spanish Civil War there were 80 million direct deaths and that, worldwide, the deaths caused by these armed conflicts exceed 100 million. In Catalonia we still need to overcome the twisted view that the winners of the Spanish Civil War disseminated over forty years of dictatorship. It is necessary to rescue from oblivion the cruel and bloody war between brothers that has conditioned and that continues to condition our present. It is necessary to recovery the diversity of the memories of the war, but, above all, to recover the memory of the defeated. It is also necessary to manage our democratic memory carefully in order to strengthen the values of democracy and peace, to construct the necessary memorial sites and avoid falling into the trap of revenge or seeing ourselves as victims.

In history, as in all disciplines, information is essential to build knowledge, but it is not enough on its own. Information is the step prior to our analysis and interpretation through our conceptual organisation and it is this that enables us to understand what is happening in society. In the case of wars, what we need to do is discover the causes and the processes that they have triggered in order to discover their development and, finally, their outcome and the destructive and cruel consequences that all wars entail. It is necessary to order facts chronologically and construct the cause/event/consequence sequence in order to process information correctly and construct historical knowledge: this way, children will learn to think historically, will learn to connect facts and situations and to organise the cognitive and conceptual structures that make information understandable.

We should not forget that, as well as talking about wars, it is also necessary to work using social history contents, which help students with their identification of simple, anonymous people and the historical processes that they had to live through. This consists of researching topics in the classroom that are related to every-day life, something that unites people, topics that can be experienced by any one of us and not just grand epic moments, whether political or military, that bring us closer to great figures who are far removed from normal people. Obviously, we have to acknowledge the rulers and military leaders involved in the most important events of a certain war, but possibly through the experiences of a soldier, of a child in the war, of a refugee or of a housewife we will be able to capture the consequences of war and post-war effects on simple people (hunger, fear, the arrival of displaced people and refugees, diseases and malnutrition, bombings of the civilian population etc.).