Education Opinion

Teaching Students About War

By Edwin J. Delattre — February 06, 1991 6 min read

In the days since we went to war in the Persian Gulf, the media--especially television--have featured the reactions of American students and their schools. Many broadcasts emphasize classrooms where teachers invite students to describe their feelings--their fears, confusions, and worries--about war.

Counselors, teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and television personalities celebrate these classroom activities. These putative experts subscribe to a model of education as group therapy, the basic goal of which is the disclosure and sharing of feelings for the sake of “coping.”

Some schools now offer psychological counseling to students and teach students that expressions of opinion about the war are acceptable and will be tolerated, as one superintendent says, “as long as they respect all points of view.”

Television cameras visit other classrooms where regular lessons and studies have been suspended. Students watch television coverage of the war in the Middle East. “The students,” commentators say, “can watch history in the making.”

These are predictable but dismaying trends. It is certainly true that children should be spared inordinate fear by loving instruction from their parents and teachers. It is similarly true that teachers and parents should seek to know what their charges worry about.

Educationally, these are imperatives because inordinate fear causes unnecessary suffering and obstructs reliable knowledge of reality. And worry and concern are natural springs of the yearning to know and understand--they provide reasons to study and motives to think.

Preoccupation with feelings alone will bring students no closer to possession of the traditions of civility to which they are rightful heirs. Immersion in sentiment will not engage them in the long, literary history of reflection on the human condition; it will only isolate them in the narrow confines of their own transient psychological states.

As Robert Coles puts the point, “It has been possible in the past for children in the United States to get through wars without the massive intervention of school psychologists and television personalities, and I rather suspect it will be possible in the future if we only give children a chance.”

To give students a chance is to take them beyond and behind the unfiltered information of the media to the study of history, literature, geography, cartography, civics, vocabulary, spelling, and the fine arts appropriate to their age. And as they mature, into reflection on moral ideals such as justice, courage, and restraint, and political and military categories, including planning, strategy, and tactics. Such studies give students a chance to form considered opinions about war and peace and do not convey to them the false message that only this war, only their own immediate present, makes any difference.

Because they are worried and fearful--and because war is so horrible--students should be learning to ask why Winston Churchill insisted, “War is horrible, but slavery is worse.” Why Robert E. Lee reflected, “It is good that war is so horrible, lest we should love it too much.” They should be learning to ask why, in its enduring cadences, Ecclesiastes says:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die.

a time to kill, and a time to heal.

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.

Students and their teachers should be achieving the humility that comes with learning how hard it is to tell, sometimes, which time it is.

They should be learning to see into and feel sympathy with the sorrow in the eyes of the women in Anna Lee Merritt’s painting, War. And to contrast the blithe innocence of the children in Lilly Martin Spencer’s painting, The War Spirit at Home: Celebrating the Victory at Vicksburg, with the dread of war etched in the grave faces of their mother and her housemaid. They should be learning to enter the feelings of others in the spirit of the Golden Rule.

Where students are old enough, they should be wondering why, in 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “During recent months I have come to see more and more the need for the method of nonviolence in international relations.” Why did he say that he had previously felt that “war, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system,” and then add that he had come to the conclusion that it was no longer possible for war to serve even “as a negative good”?

Why, by contrast, did Frederick Douglass publish in his Rochester, N.Y., newspaper his own exhortation, “Men of Color, To Arms!” with the insistence, “Words are now useful only as they stimulate to blows. The office of speech now is only to hint out when, where, and how to strike to the best advantage. ... ‘Better even die free, than to live slaves.’ ... I urge you to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave”? Why did Douglass insist that “dreaming of peace” was infatuation and blindness and that the failure of some black men to answer the call proved only that “there are weak and cowardly men in all nations”?

Students should be learning to see something of the “peace ... everywhere beginning to take shape” that Antoine de Saint-Exupery saw as he flew to Arras in 1942; “a nameless peace that stands for the end of everything.” They should learn why a man of such sensibilities would say, “The peace that is on its way ... spreads apace like gray leprosy.”

They should be asking why some ancient civilizations taught the young that it is a sweet and seemly thing to die for one’s country. And why thousands of years later Joseph Conrad would lament the fate of people who “go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, of terror.”

They should be learning that they are made of the same flesh and blood as Anne Frank, who, despite her heartache and fear, hiding from Nazis, could write in 1943 that she and her family must not succumb to self-pity. And months later, in the year of her death, “I know that first and foremost I shall require courage and cheerfulness. ... I am often downcast, but never in despair. ... Why can’t people live peacefully together?” We should be teaching them of the anguish we feel for the death of the young because, unlike Willa Cather’s Archbishop Latour, they do not die “of having lived.”

If students, and their minds and hearts, are taken this seriously by their teachers and their parents, they will learn that they are not alone. Their heritage is replete with human beings who have given their best to make sense of the ordeals of judgment and action imposed by circumstance on all conscientious people.

They will learn that history in the making is not so much what they see on television as what they make of themselves. History is being made in their classrooms today--by whether they are learning reading, writing, mathematics, and so on, or instead being indulged in persistent ignorance fueled by glorification of passion, emotion, and sentiment. They need to know that if they become a generation of Americans ill-educated in their own time, they threaten the world with a bleaker future than does the horror of any current war.

Likewise, if students are exposed to the history of voices that disagree about war--or specific wars--yet remain civil, patient, and willing to listen, they will learn to tell which points of view deserve respect. They will learn that the views of those who take sadistic pleasure in the waging of war and the infliction of suffering deserve no respect. Those who wantonly and remorselessly slaughter the innocent deserve no respect. Those who would condemn as evil everyone who disagrees with them deserve no respect. And those who are indifferent to the sacrifices of their own women and men at arms deserve no respect.

All this, students whose habits of mind and heart are improved by real educational opportunity that springs from the tragedy of war, have a chance to learn. Nothing less--however well-intentioned--is good enough.

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as Teaching Students About War