Can it make sense to 'teach' violence?

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Should we put a book portraying violence into the curriculum? Is it the duty of teachers to protect children from lessons that include brutality or is their responsibility to raise hard issues, even if such lessons contain cruelty and bloodshed?

Clearly, it is impossible to protect children and teens from the very real violence around them - it is there in daily news broadcasts and newspapers and in media images that are impossible to escape.

Violence is a reality in many children's daily lives: illness, accident, war, sorrow. Isn't it better to examine these concerns in a thoughtful way within an educational environment where children's fears can be addressed by teachers, rather than allow the popular commercial media to supply a curriculum more concerned with profits than education?

Although my novel The Foretelling centres around an Amazon society during the Bronze Age, in which war and death are everyday occurrences, as unavoidable as the snow on the steppes on which it takes place, I believe this novel can be a conduit to serious and important conversations with students about current issues of both a personal and global nature.

I wrote The Foretelling with a single question in mind: would a civilisation run by women differ from our current societies? Would such a society be able to turn a war culture into one of peace? For many teenagers in the United States, the post-911 world is one where the most fundamental images are those of ruin and war.

Our children are being raised with the constant threat of terrorism and with a wartime jingoism frightening similar to the intractability of the political mindset during the Vietnam war: "My country, right or wrong." "My country, love it or leave it."

Such slogans add up to the same thing: do not think or examine or question.

All of the things we want our students to do.

In writing a wartime novel for teens, I tried to address the confusion of adolescents in the US regarding what was then taking place in Iraq - questions that surely plague teenagers in any culture in which there is war.

Why had the conflict begun in the first place? Had our leaders made certain decisions based on information that had proven to be false? Were those who disagreed with policy nothing more than traitors and cowards? Why is it that war seems to take on a life of its own; once begun it is nearly impossible to disengage until there is a clear winner and a loser, no matter what the cost to both.

Through the eyes of my character, Rain, a teenage reader can examine war and violence - in another country and another era, but one in which individuals have the same fears and hopes as young people do today. The characters are warriors, and the effects of war are very clear. There is no replay button here, unlike in many video games in which characters rise from the dead and have multiple lives. In The Foretelling, fallen warriors do not return from the battlefield. This is a world of blood and bones, a harsh story told in the voice of a girl whose mother has rejected her because she is the product of violence.

But it is precisely because of her experiences in a brutal world that Rain begins to wonder if there might be another way, a path toward mercy and peace. It is only when Rain faces her culture's history of violence, and when she comes to terms with her own personal loss, that she is able to find her truest self: a brave, valuable girl who is not afraid to question the past or the present.

If we omit violence from the curriculum, our children will learn their lessons from the fantasy violence of film and video games targeted at their age group, violence that contains no real consequences in worlds where life is cheap and crime is celebrated by scoring higher points on-screen.

If we don't help our teenagers to feel comfortable raising questions about the nature of war and the reality of violence, then we are doing them a grave disservice; they will be doomed to discover for themselves lessons we could have helped them to explore and understand in the classroom.

Alice Hoffman's novel for children, The Foretelling, is published by Egmont Books at pound;9.99

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