Sunday 16 March 2014

'Poetry is no way to teach the Great War': Sue Purkiss

It will not have escaped your notice that this year is the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. There have already been masses of documentaries, dramas, articles and books to mark the event - one particularly interesting series, Britain's Great War, came from Jeremy Paxman. And there's still some time to go before we reach 28th July, when the war actually began.

Kaiser Wilhelm
What's fascinating to me is that after a hundred years, historians are re-evaluating how it came to happen. It was never easy to understand. Why should the assassination of an obscure Austrian archduke have led to such a vast and savage cataclysm? Well, it was all to do with alliances, we were told. That was what I used to tell children too, back in the day when I was an English teacher and taught the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. In fact, it was even more complicated than it used to appear. Like most things, the way events unfolded had much to do with personalities. Take Kaiser Wilhelm, for example. He was a child born with a withered arm whom his mother, one of Queen Victoria's daughters, found difficult to love. According to a recent documentary about him and his two cousins, King George V of England and Nicholas, last Czar of Russia, Wilhelm was always the one who didn't fit in, the one who nobody really liked. When it came to negotiating with Russia and England, the relationships and antipathies between these three cousins must have played a part. Fascinating ground for a novelist to explore.

But I am allowing myself to be distracted. The divisive figure I'm intending to write about isn't Kaiser Bill, it's Jeremy Paxman. Last Thursday, Wellington School hosted a prestigious conference at Westminster. The subject was Schools and the Great War Centenary, and the speakers included, as well as a number of eminent historians, Michael Morpurgo and Ian Hislop (who recently co-wrote an excellent TV drama about The Wipers Times).

According to a report in The Times on Friday ( I can't provide a link because access to The Times online is not free), Paxman used the occasion to weigh into schools, which, he apparently said, are 'relying too much on poetry when introducing pupils to the realities of the First World War.' He went on: 'It seems to me poetry is part of the problem of how we teach World War One... All that is taught is about the pointless sacrifice. It's not helpful to see the whole thing through the eyes of poetry... Luxuriating in the horror of the thing really won't do and doesn't set out to answer really interesting questions.'

Please note: I am relying on the report in The Times. I wasn't there. I emphasise this to be clear that I'm very aware, as we all are on this blog, that it's important to get your facts right.

Now, as I said before, I used to teach war poetry. Before this, I studied it at school. I was immensely moved by it - by its beauty, by the pity of it, and because for the first time, through poems like Dulce Et Decorum Est and Strange Meeting, I could really see how the form of the poetry was indispensable to the meaning. Because it seized my imagination, I went on to read more about the war. And when I was teaching, I saw the same poems have a very similar effect on the wide range of pupils that I taught. More than anything except, perhaps, Of Mice And Men, reading these poems created a still and silent classroom. They spoke to the students in the same way that they had spoken to me.

As well as I could, I put them into context. I talked to the students about the causes and the nature of this particular war. (And yes, I even showed them the last episode of Blackadder. I admit it, and I don't regret it, because the effect of that last scene was electrifying.) But - here's the thing, Mr Paxman: as an English teacher, my priority was not to teach them about the war. There was another department that did that - the history department. Are you forgetting about the historians? You shouldn't. Without their teaching, none of those eminent historians at the conference would have been inspired to go on and study history.

So - please. Just think it through a little. 'Poetry is no way to teach the Great War' might make a nice soundbite. But your argument is based on a false premiss: poetry is not the way the Great War is taught - it's only a small part of it. You don't need to take inaccurate shots at teachers to make an interesting argument - they are already targets for flak from all quarters quite often enough.

Michael Morpurgo, of course, had a different approach. 'Stories engaged pupils in a way that history books sometimes failed to do, he said.' (The Times)

Just one last thought before I leave the subject of TV programmes about the war. Last night, interviews were broadcast with veteran soldiers from all sides. The interviews were offcuts from the 1964 landmark series, The Great War. Now, I remember sitting down with my whole family to watch that. It was horrifying and mesmerising.

And yet, my grandfather was himself a veteran. I knew he had fought in France. I was thirteen. Why did it never occur to me to go and ask him about his experiences? It's not always easy to explain the things we do, is it - or the things we don't do.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Politicians are about nice sound bites, aren't they? Sounds like our former PM, who used to go on about a "black armband" view of history. Poetry has power. It was written by people who were there, not by politicians. So do stories. Want to know about the battlefields of the Great War? Just read the Mordor scenes of Lord Of The Rings. Tolken lost two of his three closest friends there. It was a nightmarish thing, that war. You can't get that out of history textbooks, alas! And if you did, some politicans would complain. They want to make something heroic out of it.

Good idea to show that last episode of Blackadder. "Who'd notice another adman around here?"

Joan Lennon said...

I think your classes will be remembered long after we're all going "Jeremy who?"

Paeony Lewis said...

Interesting, Sue, and I agree. At school I was taught the dry facts that led to WWI and I wish my knowledge had been brought alive with poetry in the way it was for my children at school.

Michele said...

My O-level English curriculum stopped before we got to WW1. I came to it via the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon - I heard one of his non-war poems on the radio one day and noted the title and poet, and eventually, in a second hand bookshop that no longer exists, came across a slim volume of his poetry that had the poem in it. For a long time the book just sat on my shelf, after I'd copied out the poem that had grabbed me until one day I decided to read some more of his poems, and that's when I discovered he'd served in WW1, and in seeking to learn more about his experience, I fell into studying WW1 (in particular the social and cultural history because military history never interested me as much). After ten years of studying by myself, I ended up taking an English and History degree. All because of some WW1 poetry. So a pox on Paxman and his stupid soundbites.

Penny Dolan said...

One thing to consider is whether the KS3 school year groups that study "War Poetry" also study history. Doesn't history become an "optional subject" quite early on now? (I'm not talking about this year's commemoration.)

Paxman seems to me to suggest that the historical facts are as important as the poetry, which I agree with - especially after seeing some of the excellent and enlightening programmes around just now.

Poetry goes for an identifiable and universal emotion; I could call it the "how do you feel" approach. History can tell you about the "steps" and complications involved, before, during and after; the "why" and "how". Both valid. I suspect that Paxman has been - after the Paxo-Gove collision - not been fully reported. Makes a better Times article that way?

Penny Dolan said...

However, how much time will students spend on history anyway? FYI, possibly: A coupl eof comments from the the Historical Associations Response to the new proposals. (2013)

"Time allocation - there has been no indication that history will be given any more time in the curriculum. It is only compulsory to aged 14 unlike most other European countries. Some schools provide less than 1 hour a week for history

. . . .

Fact: England is one of the few European countries that allow pupils drop history at aged 14 - and in some schools prevents them from taking history in case it affects the overall exam results of the school.


Now a two-year programme of study?

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Penny, that certainly puts his remarks in a wider context. I expect he was exaggerating to make a point - but all the same: 'Speaking afterwards, he said that the war was "only ever taught as poetry now," adding: "It really won't do."' That simply isn't true. History is not compulsory at GCSE, and so far as I know, it never has been; but that doesn't alter the fact that many pupils choose to take it, both at GCSE and at A-level, and are taught about both world wars. (Some insider knowledge here: my husband only recently retired from teaching history at a state secondary, where it was a very popular subject.)

Penny Dolan said...

Bowing before insider knowledge, and glad to know that history is still a popular option.

But how long do KS3 study WWI, or any topic for? And is it an optional unit within the syllabus?

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Paxman also said in a speech a few days ago that today's young people were too spoiled and selfish (not his exact words, I saw the gist repeated in the Independent) to lay down their lives for their country.
I'd say an awful lot of them have already laid down their lives in foreign wars that have changed nothing and maybe the war poetry is the part of the reason so many of them no longer feel inclined to make such sacrifice. When they know so much about what war is really like, it's far harder to romanticize it.
Certainly that was the view of the Independent journalist, and he was angry with Paxman for jeering at young people so unfairly.
Besides, the past decades have all been about promoting individualism over community. So it's a lot to ask to expect the kind of national spirit that once existed to bloom today.
I think young people today are well-informed and suspicious and would need to see a real reason to go to war. They wouldn't just enlist at a word from our self-serving politicians.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Someone should ask this politician if he'd be happy to have his own children die for their country! Dear me, no!

We have compulsory history till Year 10 here. The wars, 1 and 2, are part of the Year 10 curriculum. A class was watching Schindler's List the other day and I saw a gentle young girl, one of my former students, leave the room in tears, with a boy comforting her. Not poetry, but it makes its point - stories do have power. ;-)

Sue Purkiss said...

He's not actually a politician, Sue, he's a very prominent presenter (and writer)- particularly known for his combative interviews with politicians, and for hosting a programme called University challenge. Not backwards in coming forwards!

Leslie Wilson said...

Is it unselfish to go to war and kill people, and make widows and orphans? My father said to me once:'No soldier gives his life, he sells it as dearly as he can.' I was taught Wilfrid Owen at school, and also, very intelligently, about the tensions in Europe and the various crises that didn't lead to war, the brinkmanship that finally led to disaster, and the arms race. I found both approaches helpful.

Sue Purkiss said...

Exactly - you need both. Ridiculous to suggest that schools use only poetry.