This is the second in an occasional series aimed at teachers in schools with international students. We explore how to teach history to students who have learned about the same events from sometimes radically different points of view. Read the first part here.
In 2014, the world is preparing to take a solemn look back at the First World War, as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of its absurd, globe-shattering beginning in a sleepy Sarajevan outpost of the Habsburg Empire. The war, while horrifically tragic, is all but a part of history now, as its last remaining soldiers are succumbing to extreme old age, and their memories fall as silent as those once thundering guns of August.
That distance is both a blessing and a curse for history teachers. It is a benefit because such a gap allows history to be taught more neutrally, divorced from political battles (unlike the Cold, Vietnam, and Iraq Wars). It is a curse because the war, which broke ancient empires and created the modern world, becomes just another sleepy signpost on history’s march.
This may be different if you have international students, particularly if they are from Europe. It is true that in Continental classrooms, much like their American counterparts, WWI is studied less than WWII, and understandably, given the latters’ enormity of scale and thematic immensity. But that doesn’t mean WWI isn’t studied at all, and that it isn’t presented with a kind of solemnity and horror that is lacking from most American studies of the subject. In fact, WWI is an amazing opportunity for history teachers to show their students just how varied the subject can be, and how there can be wildly different interpretations of agreed-upon facts.
American vs. European Perspectives
For many Americans, WWI is something horrible that happened in Europe until the USA came in to help and won the war. And, in some ways, this is very broadly true: it was horrible, and American soldiers did provide the final push that ended the conflict, but that ignores what it was that Europe went through before it ended.
We’re all familiar with the tales of trench warfare, of miserable soldiers hunkered down in the mud, soaking, cold, and terrified, while shells showered down upon them like a constant metal rain, fearing the moment of receiving the order to charge across barren land, with no cover, dodging the flying bullets. Images such as these have struck anyone who has read about them. But many American students don’t recognize that in Europe, that image wasn’t a horrific snapshot, but a constant thrum of misery, unimaginable in its scale. There had been nothing like it in European history, and the world hadn’t seen slaughter on such scale since the barely-remembered Mongol conquests.*
This is the reason why Europeans still commemorate Armistice Day, the day the war ended, with silence and solemn memories. For Americans, Veterans’ Day is a worthy holiday to thanks the efforts of all of our soldiers, but in Europe the day has a very specific meaning. It’s a day to stand on places like Flanders Fields, and feel the grim weight of history beneath your feet.
Getting to know their stories
So, as a teacher, how should you present this? To glide over it, to present it as a story that is peripheral until the United States gets involved risks alienating your European students, or at the very least provoking guffaws and rolled eyes.
It is easy to say that teachers should spend more time on the subject, and while it is probably true that schools could stand to focus more on the First World War, the same could be said for almost any part of history. You are bound by time, however, so here is a good exercise, not just for WWI, but for any contentious bit of history where you have students offering radically different perspectives.
Role-playing sounds simple, but you can do it with a twist. Instead of having your British student giving the British perspective and the German student his Germanic one, switch it up. Have an American student talk about what he thinks Germans believe about the war, based on what he knows. Or have the British student talk about the French point of view. You don’t have to have everyone “switch sides”- even allies have very different thoughts on what happened.
Afterwards, have the students critique each other’s presentations. This can be eye opening on two levels. It can teach students to recognize and consider what they haven’t been taught (i.e. an American student realizing she hadn’t seen the war from a German perspective before) or that what they have been taught isn’t universal (i.e. a German student realizing the Treaty of Versailles wasn’t just punitive, but a failed attempt to be preventative).
The number of different perspectives will be limited only by the amount of international students you have in your class. This is a fascinating subject in which to try this experiment, because most people agree on the broad facts of the war, but they will approach it from different points of view. A Turkish or Russian student might see it as when an ancient empire fell and their modern country was founded, while a German student might consider it as the war in which all sides were to blame but the Germans were punished the most, starting them on the path to the Third Reich. A French student may see it as the endlessly brave defense of the homeland. It will illustrate for all your students the rich and textured way that history is written, how it is far from a set of facts, but more like a common tune sung with different lyrics in every country.
*These are very well-remembered in some places, which is a theme for another article in this series.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.