Teaching children about war: 2014

Update 2 December 2014: Audacity for 10 year-olds and an 1897 predecessor

A comparative review of a jingoistic classic from 1897, Deeds that Won the Empire, and Audacity: Stories of Heroic Australians in Wartime, a recent publication from the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. These two publications bear some similarities but also notable differences. Together, they say a lot about how the State and its supporters promote causes, particularly to children.

Update 1 November 2014: thoughtful remarks from the Australian War Memorial

Australian War Memorial education and lifelong learning manager, Stuart Baines, has posted a thoughtful piece on the Memorial’s website about the connections between the Australian experience of war and the Australian history curriculum. Baines wonders whether we risk creating new myths, particularly around Fromelles, and perpetuating these in history teaching.

Context is critical when examining history, perhaps never more so than when dealing with conflict. The First World War is a global event that cost millions of lives. The Australian experience is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is our experience. The losses and impact on our society are significant, but they have a global military and social context that is also important. More specifically, curriculum statements need to have a context of overall experience to guide teachers towards content that helps provide an indicative and balanced view of the Australian experience. The risk in the current framework is that Fromelles may be seen, by the nature of it being singled out, as a defining moment, a battle with equal significance to Gallipoli, the Somme, or even the entire Sinai and Palestine theatre of war. This may be a battle currently prominent in social consciousness, and it may very well have useful resources written to support it, but the ability of a teacher to use this battle as a way of defining a key aspect of the Australian experience of war is questionable.

David Stephens from Honest History provided a comment on Baines’s piece, supporting him on myth-making, the need for context, fashions in commemoration and the importance of visiting battlefields, but suggesting that the Memorial corporately needed to broaden its horizons.

Update 24 October 2014: Minister Ronaldson on obligations of children (again)

The Minister spoke on 4KQ Brisbane and said this:

I want to come out of this [the Anzac centenary period] with our kids understanding the when, where, and the why. Now there are 102,000 names etched onto the cloisters of the Australian War Memorial of men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and paid for our freedom in their own blood, and I think it is really important for the next generation of young people that they have got obligations and responsibility to look after these men and women. If they don’t understand that these freedoms have come at a huge price then they may not be as inclined to do so. So that is why I think this centenary commemorative period is really, really important.

While these remarks were off-the-cuff they are perhaps a little clearer than previous statements by the Minister about what is involved in the obligations these children are said to have. He may be talking about an obligation to care for (‘look after’) veterans on the basis that these veterans’ comrades died in war. This would be more supportable than some of his previous remarks, here and here, which seem to imply that children should be ready to make similar ‘sacrifices’ in blood to those made by their fathers and grandfathers. It would be good if the Minister could make a considered speech about the nature of the obligations he sees resting on future generations.

Update 23 October 2014: imprinting incomplete history in children

David Turnoy (see below Update 27 June 2014) has given an interview about his book American Tales (history for children with an emphasis on myth-busting) and said a bit more about teaching honest history to children at a young age:

Brain research shows that we learn by making connections to knowledge already in our brain. If we are taught a false history or a very incomplete history when we are introduced to history for the first time, it is harder to overcome this with honest history if and when the student finally encounters it. Better to teach honest history the first time around in elementary school.

Update 16 October 2014: is Anzac a danger to children?

David Stephens writes in Independent Australia on whether Anzac is a danger to children. ‘It is my contention’ he says, ‘that Anzac – that is, Australia’s military history, in the way it is currently presented – is a danger to the psychic health of our younger generations and may well be a danger to their future physical well-being also’. A link to this article was posted to the Australian War Memorial’s Education Facebook page and elicited a useful response from the Memorial but, due to a website glitch, neither the link nor the response remains. Pity.

Update 1 September 2014: children sing about marching heroes

We had not previously heard the song ‘Can you hear Australia’s heroes marching?’ which can be purchased in various forms online. The music and lyrics are, in our view, banal and shallow, giving children a rose-tinted and sentimental view of war. We understand the song has become quite popular in schools and at veterans’ funerals. We would be interested to hear the opinions of others and have added a comments function to this page for that purpose.

Update 24 August 2014: seduction of children

Janine Rizzetti (The Resident Judge of Port Phillip) blogged about the Royal Historical Society of Victoria conference earlier in August, which was addressed by Ted Baillieu MP, former premier and chair of the Victorian Anzac centenary committee, ‘encouraging schoolchildren to identify with ancestors who served; marking the houses with plaques where men enlisted’. Rizzetti commented:

There’s something so seductive about such plans – who, after all, does NOT want children to have an appreciation of what has gone before? – but I must confess here to my own misgivings. I am unsettled by the emotional salience of war, so sensitively discussed by Bart Ziino the night before, being used as a hook for children, painted over by a “heroic” gloss.

Update 15 August 2014: beating the Drum

Victorian Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Damian Drum, tweeted a picture of school children standing up in an assembly. The caption read: ‘@Anzac100Vic roadshow at Bendigo South East College, those standing would likely have enlisted during ww1’.

The roadshow is an official Victorian Government activity. It is not clear what else happened in the assembly, particularly how balanced a presentation was given about the implications of enlisting for the soldiers and their families.


The Minister tweeted this to Honest History’s Twitter account at approximately 6.30 pm: ‘@honesthistory1 @Anzac100Vic this was on % of people that enlisted during WW1, demonstrating the devastating affect it had on community’. By 9.00 pm the tweeted picture had been taken down.

Update 14 August 2014: Bertrand Russell in 1917

We found this elsewhere on the site and thought it was worth repeating:

Every State wishes to promote national pride, and is conscious that this cannot be done by unbiased history. The defenseless children are taught by distortions and suppressions and suggestions. The false ideas as to the history of the world which are taught in the various countries are of a kind which encourages strife and serves to keep alive a bigoted nationalism.

Bertrand Russell, Why Men Fight (1917), p. 161.

Update 11 August 2014: children suffer

‘The children suffer’: David Stephens writes for Pearls and Irritations; version with links.

We adults are champions at “nuance” in relation to war so it is no wonder that children are fed loads of it. The essential message that war requires soldiers to kill or be killed is lost in nonsense about connecting or “understanding” or smothered by sanitised collections of war memorabilia and dress-ups.

Update 4 August 2014: Simpson Prize; Soundscape: Facebook

Our piece analysing the Simpson Prize and speculating about its future has created considerable interest. Meanwhile, today also marked the launch of the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour Soundscape project, which we have discussed before on this site. Such projects require us to consider whether teaching children about war is also teaching war to children. Meanwhile, the Memorial’s education section has started a Facebook page.

Update 27 June 2014 (updated!): primary school children and honest history

Elsewhere on the site is Peter Stanley’s talk about whether teachers should be patriotic, which links rather nicely to the narrower question of how to get history across to primary schoolers. In that connection, we just found this very interesting article from a US primary school teacher and author of children’s history books. David Turnoy asks the important question, ‘at what age can we introduce children to honest history?’ and his answer includes this food for thought:

For myself and for students, I have found that we tend to regard the first information we learn about a particular subject as the baseline, and the way the brain works, all subsequent information is taken in by making connections to this original information and judged in light of it …

So what information should be taught? Should it be the traditional bland summary showing America as always in the right, led by truly admirable heroes who bring about change while leaving out any negative actions, which leads to disinterested, unquestioning citizens who allow government and other elites to do as they like? Or should it be a more balanced, honest approach including actions by the US that aren’t the most laudable and also including actions of common people banding together working for a better country?

Turnoy makes some sensible points about what can be taught when and about how children process information about the violent side of history. He concludes: ‘So when is it appropriate to teach honest history? I advocate teaching it the first time history is taught.’ Turnoy’s book, American Tales, is previewed here.

Transferred to the Australian situation, Turnoy’s article should cause us to ask: what is the effect of starting primary school children on a sanitised version of our war history, with large lashings of Simpson and his donkey, tins of bully beef and letters home to the family, but very little of blood and shit, horror and death? If we can’t serve it all up because of the age of the children, should we serve any of it up until they are old enough to get the full picture?

Update 24 June 2014: blogging with the Memorial

The issue of how much children can be expected to appreciate the complexity of war and at what age they can do so was raised in a Blog exchange with the Australian War Memorial. It is good to see that the Memorial is prepared to use this means to discuss aspects of war commemoration.

The questions raised on 21 May (just below) and at the end of our article on the Soundscape Project remain very relevant. Meanwhile, we have done a note on recent war-related books for children and we have asked people to write reviews of them for us.

Update 21 May 2014: #histedchat on Twitter, Wednesday 21 May, 8.30 pm for an hour

This was held (thanks all!) and conversation can be viewed here.


1. How much can we teach children about war and when?

2. What balances need to be struck e.g. between horror and heroism?

3. Is teaching children about war part of their civic education or simply another academic subject?

4.What resources are available to use, especially at primary level?

5. How do extra-curricular activities fit in with teaching this subject?

David Stephens (Tweeting @honesthistory1)


How children learn about Australia’s war history has been a concern of Honest History since the beginning. We took a close interest in Minister Pyne’s initiative to revamp the history curriculum. We described and questioned the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour Soundscape project, which attempts to ‘connect’ Year 6 children with the 62 00o dead of World War I. We are researching, as time permits, the history of the Simpson Prize. We are keen to build links to History Teachers’ Associations.

In our Twitter involvement, we have noted an interest in how children come to grips with the history of Australia and war, what level of understanding is appropriate at particular ages, whether young people can or should fully comprehend the many facets of war – horror as well as heroism, home front as well as battles, aftermath as well as campaigns, social impacts added to family trauma. Having access to a wide range of resources, particularly to augment the material coming from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, has been mentioned as a particularly pressing issue.

David Stephens, Secretary of Honest History, who tweets on Honest History’s behalf (@honesthistory1) is convening a chat (#histedchat) on the evening of 21 May. We hope to cover a range of these issues and establish some networks for future contacts. Please follow us @honesthistory1 or monitor #histedchat if you are interested in this subject. Meanwhile, talking of resources for children, have you seen John Schumann’s new book?

28 April 2014