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Remember Harry’s Nazi uniform?

September 19, 2011

There was a huge furore about it at the time, but as a result, the Herald on Sunday ran a wee poll and concluded that not many NZ teenagers knew what Auschwitz was, who Hitler was or which countries were fighting which in WWII, though NZ teens seemed to know slightly more than their British peers (p1).

The principal of Rangitoto College at the time, Allan Peachey, “said young people’s lack of historical knowledge could be traced directly back to the school system. …Harry’s insensitive costume choice showed the Prince lacked a historical context in which to formulate his moral values, Mr Peachey said. ‘That’s one of the problems that today’s youngsters have, because they don’t understand their history and they don’t understand their past so they actually don’t have a context in which to make value judgements.'” (p2)

Is it through knowledge of ‘our’ history that we find a context in which to make value judgements?  

Is it and should it be the responsibility of the school system to teach history? …especially if history is expected to provide a basis for moral decisions? How else might history be shared? How do you decide what is ‘our’ history? …particularly when you are referring to a nation of immigrants?

Ref: Jonathan Dow and Patrick Crewdson ‘Auschwitz where is that?’ Herald on Sunday, Jan 16, 2005, pp1+2  (my emphases) (NOTE: The same article gave some stats, which I scanned as: Auschwitz stats. Don’t think they’ll mind me promoting their work!)

Literacy makes the child

Similar claims to moral education are made on behalf of children’s books;

In her foreword to an anthology of children’s literature about war and peace, Carol Fox writes: “This anthology is the result of a collaboration by teacher educators in three European countries, Belgium, Portugal and the UK, a project which has been funded for four years by the Comensius section of the EU Socrates programme.  The EU was based on the desire of war-torn European countries never to repeat the horrors of the two world wars of the last century, a desire that has become more urgent as we enter a new millennium in a Europe that still cannot call itself peaceful.” (p9)  Fox makes the connection between the publication of children’s literature and adult political ideals explicit, but also goes on to express the somewhat pervasive view that children have the responsibility of preserving peace in the future after learning about war…

She goes on to write that “We have selected our passages on the basis that children are likely to enjoy them and want to read more, rather than on any shared ideology about war.  …We hope that by their reading of these extracts from stories children will be encouraged to make connections between the past and their own lives and situations; indeed many children’s authors help them to do precisely that.” (p10)
Ref: Editors Carol Fox, Annemie Leysen, Irène Koenders (2000) In times of War; an anthology of war and peace in children’s literature. Pavilion Books Ltd: London.

Similarly, the 26th IBBY Congress in New Delhi (September 20-24, 1998) took the theme, ‘The Concept of Peace in Literature: Past and Present’ and a number of interesting speeches/essays are described connecting books with morals – and with knowledge of one’s past.  According to Leena Maissen (p42):

Professors of education, Joan Glazer (USA) and Metka Kordigel (Slovenia) both presented essays “on the possibilities of a peaceful future through children’s literature.”

Author and psychologist, Ira Saxena (India), and author, journalist, education specialist, Padma Edirisinghe (Sri Lanka) sought to answer the question “Coping with violence: Can books help the child?

Empress Michiko of Japan sent a video-speech in which she commented on the importance of the IBBY’s “work of linking books and children in the belief that books are children’s valuable friends and are a help to them.  So that children have firm roots within themselves. So that children have strong wings of joy and imagination.  So that children know love, accepting that at time love calls for pain. So that children see and face the challenge of life’s complexities, fully taking on the life given to each, and, finally, upon this earth which is our common home, become, one day, true instruments of peace.” (my emphases, p41)

Tayo Shima (Japan), upcoming president of IBBY, said: “We do not know how to compete with the market forces of the contemporary consumer economy that so enthrall the children of today. Neither do we know how to undo the knots of ethnic and religious intolerance, how to prevent war and violence.  We do know from experience the tremendous power and nourishment that can be provided by books.  …We need to be ready when our children seek out new realms of experience and need the support and solace of books.” (my emphasis, pp42-43)

It all puts me in mind of an article I mentioned at some point that discussed the link between literacy and the bourgeois conception of the child… Is this what’s happening here? Are we linking the moralities and personal development of childhood to literacy? That’s interesting!  This idea that books (of History or children’s literature) teach young readers how to be peaceful and moral seems so pervasive…  enough so that what Professor of children’s literature, Meni Kanatsouli (Greece), said of popular culture and tradition almost seems to stand apart.

Kanatsouli stated: “Popular tradition and culture are today the most powerful bond connecting today’s youth with his past, whether it be his own individual past or that of the group, race, or nation he belongs to.  They also provide young people with an inexhaustible source for viewing human relationships which are founded on one principle: that cultural diversity is a necessity for a world seeking reconciliation and peace in order to coexist.  The expressiveness inherent in popular tradition and culture, but mainly the directness in word-of-mouth transmission as well as its emotional power are the best means for a young person to involve himself in the magical search for himself and his world.  In the very true words of Marcel Proust: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.'” (my emphases, p43)

Ref: Leena Maissen ‘Peace through children’s books: IBBY Congress 1998 in New Delhi’ Bookbird; Winter 1998; 36, 4; pp40-45

The emotional power of oral transmission

This idea of emotional power to which Kanatsouli refers is also expressed by Yolanda Reyes, in a particularly personal and convincing way (see ‘La guerra: entre la perplejidad y la impotencia‘ Cuatrogatos, No.7, july-sept 2001).  In what I believe is an introduction to her book, Los agujeros negros, Reyes opens with her grandmother’s heartfelt wish that she never live through a war: “‘Ojalá ustedes nunca tengan que vivir una guerra”, decía mi abuela y cerraba los ojos, como implorándoselo al futuro. …poco importa ahora de cuál de todas las guerras hablaba mi abuela. Lo que logro entresacar de esa nebulosa de mis recuerdos de infancia es esa sensación que iban creando sus palabras: su expresión, entre angustiada y suplicante, y las imágenes mentales que yo me fabricaba.  Mi cabeza mezclaba escenas del sitio de Cartagena sacadas de mis textos de historia patria –con esa gente comiendo ratas y suelas de zapato–,  con las películas sobre guerras mundiales y con los casos reales de escasez y miedo relatados por la abuela.”  It is the feeling of her grandmother’s words; her expression, between anguished and pleading, that seems to colour all consequent knowledge of war that Reyes encounters.

This suggestion that our understanding of violence is filtered through the emotions of our early communications with significant adults makes perfect sense to me… and ought, I think, be considered more fully when ‘teaching’ history or war or peace or violence.

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