How to Get Students to Pay Attention to the First World War

Roundup: Talking About History

Terry Castle, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (Nov. 5, 2004):

What does it mean to remember the First World War? Over the past few years I have been trying to get my students -- mostly 19- or 20-year-old Stanford English majors --  to learn about, think about, reckon with, remember the Great War. I have been spectacularly unsuccessful. My latest failure came just this spring, in an honors seminar on Virginia Woolf. We were reading Jacob's Room, the hero of which dies on the Western Front, and I suspected -- correctly -- that my students knew little about the war or its repercussions. (Make of it what you will, but all of the students except one were female.)

I set out to give them my usual nasty brutish overview, complete with some rough-'em-up Powerpoints to shock them into attention: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife dead in their coffins; the idiot kaiser in his skull-helmet; pathetic mobs of Frenchmen, Englishmen, and Germans crowding into recruiting stations in 1914-15; Ypres and Verdun in ruins; trenches and craters and bombed-out churches; and of course lots of dead and dismembered bodies. Boneyards and muck on a sunny Palo Alto morning! This is why, I gravely informed the students, Woolf gave the doomed protagonist of Jacob's Room the last name of Flanders.

When their papers came in, one of the more intelligent young women in the group (or so I had judged her) had produced some garbled late-night drivel about how traumatic it was for Woolf to see the peaceful English countryside devastated by trench warfare during the First World War. Now I know academic piety insists that one hold one's students dear, even when they exhibit the most shameful ignorance and inattention. But for several days afterward I felt only rage at the student and a fairly mind-boggling hatred for my job. Why did I have to deal with such obtuseness? How could a seemingly good student get it all so bollixed up? Why did these intelligent Stanford girls (their hip-huggers and pedicures and blonde ponytails notwithstanding) have to be so blatantly oblivious? What was the point (splutter) of trying to teach them anything?

An overreaction, to be sure (though I wonder how prevalent, if taboo to mention, such feelings are in the world of college teaching). I've got various personal connections to the First World War -- a great-uncle killed during combat in France in 1918, a childhood spent on the southeastern English coast near an old World War I military cemetery -- and I've always taken a deep, even proprietorial interest in the war. I've read too much about it to feel indifferent. I share the view of H.M. Tomlinson, who in 1930 called the war"the greatest disturbance of mankind since the glaciers pushed our hunting forefathers down to the South." It seems indissolubly linked -- politically and existentially -- to everything that has gone wrong in the world ever since, including present-day calamities in the Middle East. My student's mental chaos -- her palpable failure to remember what I'd told her -- caused me pain.

Now a few months later, having just read a raft of new books on World War I, I feel a little more forgiving. Since the appearance of the first official histories in the 1920s, the First World War has inspired a body of scholarship and interpretation virtually unmatched in erudition, vastness, and moral depth. (Only the scholarship on the Holocaust rivals it, perhaps, in scope and seriousness.) Some very great historians indeed -- Winston Churchill, Fritz Fischer, Luigi Albertini, A.J.P. Taylor, Martin Gilbert, John Keegan, Jay Winter -- have written books on the conflict; hundreds of others have made major contributions. Yet general interest in the Great War remains undiminished. As the centenary of the whole wretched debacle approaches -- and no, August 2014 is not that far off -- the flow of scholarly volumes dealing with the war's military, political, economic, technological, sociocultural, artistic, and psychic ramifications will no doubt increase tenfold.

I'm glad, because in my experience just about any book dealing with the First World War is worth reading....

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