Humanities - Teach First World War 'like you're living it yourself'

10th January 2014 at 00:00
Students need to understand the horror, says Birdsong author

Teachers should take the First World War "out of history" and bring the horrors of trench warfare to life to engage students with the subject, a leading author has claimed.

Sebastian Faulks, author of Birdsong - a best-selling 1993 novel set during the Great War that has become a key text for UK secondary school students - told TES that the conflict should not be taught as "yet another war in the long chain of dates". Instead, teachers should focus on the human consequences of the conflict, he said.

His comments came as a political row erupted over how the war should be taught in the run-up to this year's centenary commemorations. England's education secretary Michael Gove hit out at the way some teachers portrayed the conflict as a "misbegotten shambles perpetrated by an out- of-touch elite", rather than a "just war" to combat German aggression.

In response, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt accused Mr Gove of attempting to "sow political division" by portraying the war as a "simplistic, nationalistic triumph".

Historian Richard Evans also dismissed Mr Gove's "preference for myth- making over scholarship". And actor Sir Tony Robinson - who appeared in television comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, which was singled out by Mr Gove for peddling "myths" about the war - accused the education secretary of "slagging off teachers".

Ahead of the national tour of a new stage version of Birdsong, Faulks told TES that, rather than recounting the First World War as one in a long list of conflicts, teachers should bring the unprecedented horror of its battles to life.

"What happened in 1914 to 1918 wasn't just another war," he said. "It was a completely different event. There hadn't really been a word invented to describe it. What you got was people being static while immensely powerful machinery eliminated them. Wars had never really been like that before."

Teaching about the war, he added, "is like writing about the event in novel form; what that means is living it yourself. It's about saying, `This isn't history that happened to old men in sepia photographs; it happened to boys in the upper sixth. It might have been you.'"

Reflecting on how the conflict was taught at his own school, Wellington College, Faulks said it "seemed like a wound [the teacher] didn't want to open". He called on today's history teachers to "dehistoricise" the conflict and "make it real".

Faulks also revealed his surprise when he first learned that Birdsong was on the curriculum. "The feeling that this was deemed suitable to be taught, and had something to say, was of course a very gratifying one," he said. "Having said this, I slightly worry that children read it too young. I've had 14-year-olds come up to me and say they've read it. I would have thought that 16 was the absolute minimum."

Before he became an author, Faulks spent two years working as an English teacher at the former Dwight Franklin International School in London. His time at the chalkface was less than successful, he admitted. "I wasn't a very dedicated or professional teacher, to put it mildly. I did quite enjoy it but I think the children quite quickly saw through me," he said.

Faulks also stressed the importance of English students being exposed to work by contemporary writers alongside the traditional literary canon. "Why wouldn't you want to teach modern, contemporary stuff? There's Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy, Sean O'Brien. And, if it turns out in 50 years that posterity decided to turn against, say, Sean O'Brien, then so what? There's nothing lost by looking at modern works."

The UK tour of the new stage production of Birdsong starts on 12 February in Eastbourne.


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today