Breaking the Silence on War

By The Editors of Rethinking Schools

Illustrator: J.D. King

Illustration: J.D. King

When the World Trade Center was attacked, the international crisis reverberated in schools all over the United States. In kindergarten through high school classrooms, teachers struggled to figure out age-appropriate ways to talk about the violence.

In that endless month leading up to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and then during the contentious months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the worldwide debate about the war was echoed in classrooms. Teachers searched for curriculum, children expressed fears for relatives in the military, and youth showed anxiety about the possibility of a renewed draft. A month before the invasion of Iraq, the New York Times declared that global antiwar protests were “a new power in the streets.” After the invasion, at first there were demonstrations every day in major cities, then every month, then once a year. There was a flurry of political activity as the first high school alumni were killed, as military recruiters swarmed onto high school campuses.

Today in classrooms, as in the streets, there is too much silence.

It has never been easy to integrate “current events” into the curriculum. In many high school history classes, the current world doesn’t show up until the last few weeks of the year, if it makes it at all. In elementary and middle schools, social studies has been squeezed out of classrooms by the NCLB-fostered obsession with testing. Too many of us face increasingly tense and restricted teaching situations with escalating pressure on standardized tests and scripted curricula, rising class sizes, and an explosion of discipline problems as outlets for creative and physical expression are eliminated. Soaring levels of unemployment, foreclosure, homelessness, and incarceration affect the school environment in many parts of the country. Figuring out how to have your class read a whole book or sneaking in a field trip are enormous feats. In this context, teaching kids about the ever-expanding landscape of war from Africa through Asia seems too much to ask.

So the silence in classrooms about the wars isn’t surprising. But what does that silence tell our kids? We are now in the ninth year of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the seventh year of the U.S. war in Iraq, and on a slippery slope in an undeclared war in Pakistan. For children in elementary school and middle school, the United States has always been at war.

In 1992, just as the first U.S. war against Iraq ended and the embargo that would result in the death of a half million Iraqi children began, the feminist philosopher Susan Griffin published A Chorus of Stones. In this remarkable book, she explores the relationship between conspiracies of silence in families about incest or alcoholism and conspiracies of silence in countries about what happens in the name of war—her examples include the German extermination of Jews and the Allied bombing of Dresden. Griffin says:

The troubling nature of censorship is clearer when it falls on the very young. A certain kind of silence, that which comes from holding back the truth, is abusive in itself to a child. The soul has a natural movement toward knowledge, so that not to know can be to despair.

Silence in our classrooms about the war is heavy with potential meaning:

  • War is endless and inescapable, part of the wallpaper of life.
  • The Middle East conflict is another one of those depressing subjects that is too complicated to understand, too impossible to change, and leading us toward an inevitable Armageddon.
  • War under Bush was a legitimate subject for debate and critique, but Obama symbolizes hope—after all, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. To question Obama is to embrace hopelessness.
  • Who are we to question, when textbooks bury our ongoing wars in a few comforting paragraphs? McDougal-Littell’s Modern World History titles its brief section on the Iraq war “The Struggle Continues” and offers this summary: “Despite the coalition victory, much work remained in Iraq. With the help of U.S. officials, Iraqis began rebuilding their nation.”

We have to break this silence, no matter what the pressure of tests or workload. The conflicts expanding out from the Middle East are among the most significant events happening in the world. They are creating the history of tomorrow.

As the U.S. military’s demand for soldiers expands, our high schools and middle schools have turned into recruiting grounds. There are more than 3,200 junior ROTC units in our children’s schools, with about half a million students taking part. As the economic situation deteriorates, the racial and class discrimination of the poverty draft becomes more acute, for many of our young people feel they have no alternative to military enlistment. Recruiters flood our schools and stalk the malls. The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force exceeded their recruitment goals for the 2009 fiscal year, sending 169,000 active duty recruits to training. As high school and even middle school teachers, we have a responsibility to support our students in analyzing recruitment documents and thinking critically about the short- and long-term effects of military service.

Central to popular education—social justice education—is connecting personal experience to knowledge to collective action. This means we need to create the space for students to share their own experience of and questions about the wars, particularly when those students have family members who have died, been injured, or are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It also means offering diverse sources of information to compare with the textbook and mainstream media version of the wars, as well as seriously studying the history and current strategies of antiwar activism, with a particular focus on the role that young people have played. We want to empower our students and encourage them to act on their beliefs. We envision breaking the silences in our classrooms as part of an international effort to save our youth (all our youth—here in the United States, in the Middle East, all over the world) from war and more war.

As our young people hit adolescence, their cynicism and depression about the future are palpable. Our society’s tacit acceptance of war without end feeds fatalism about the future. Nothing is more important than giving our kids the tools to face what’s happening in the world, to understand it, and to have the critical perspective, skills, and confidence to be part of changing it.