Adult learning and the Great War


The centenary of the Great War is attracting a remarkable amount of attention. Probably some people are now tweeting that they are sick of hearing about it, as though it were just another celebrity scandal. But for most people, the War was a turning point in modern history – and because of the way that ordinary men and women were involved, it is a highly evocative experience in which family and community memories are threaded through our own lives.

For historians, particularly if they are committed to sharing their research with a wider audience, this controversial centenary presents a fabulous challenge. There is already plenty happening for adult learners wanting to improve their understanding of this tragic, heroic conflict. I reckon the BBC really is on top of its game, with a series of online presentations – like Ian Macmillan’s discussion of poetry and perceptions of the War – that are really mini-MOOCs.

I’m equally impressed by the programme of activities organised by the Yorkshire and Humber region of the Workers’ Educational Association. This includes courses on the causes and consequences of the Great War to family history workshops exploring relevant source material. Not to be outdone, the Whitstable branch of the WEA is running a course on women’s experiences with the evocative title ‘From suffragettes to munitionettes’ (listed in the hot courses guide, madly, under ‘Fun and Careers’).

Then there are museums, libraries and archives services, starting with the National Archives, which is recruiting ‘citizen historians’ to help tag entries in unit war diaries. In Gloucester, the county archivists are supporting a project led by the Everyman Theatre to provide training and learning resources so that local learners can contribute to community commemorations.  Bishops Stortford Museum is leading another project on crime and disorder during the War.

As well as funding a major programme led by the Imperial War Museum, the Heritage Lottery Fund is supporting local studies. University of the Third Age groups are researching the impact of the war on their local communities, or tracing the names on village war memorials. Huddersfield rugby league fans are examining the impact of the War on their club and its players. And the Arts and Humanities Research Council is encouraging researchers to undertake community engagement activities to connect academic and public histories of the First World War and its legacy.

All this is pretty encouraging, particularly as it is hard to find any examples of mindless jingoism or simplistic dismissal. Nevertheless, I wonder whether it is right that most of these activities, valuable though they are, are taking place within a local or at best a national frame. The exceptions, such as the family history roadshows being ordganised through the Europeana crowd-sourcing project, remind us that the Great War was a
Europe-wide conflict.

We can also learn from links with others who are marking the centenary from very different perspectives. In Germany, the Volkshochschulen have drawn up a handbook of ‘tips for practice’ in dealing with the Great War. It suggests examples ranging from discussions of source material around family history or everyday life in 1914 to group visits to major exhibitions and places of memorial, and also encourages tutors to ask whose history is being discussed (Germany in 1914, of course, being a colonial power which also had influential allies in the middle east).

In Austria, the Society for Political Education is supporting proposals that shift the focus away from such major events, asking applicants to consider such questions as: What events flow into the cultural memory and endure as part of the culture of remembrance? Why these events and not others? What part does the politics of history today play in shaping the political domain and political education?

I suppose Mr Gove would be pleased that the film series planned by the Volkshochschul in Offenburg includes neither Blackadder nor Oh What a Lovely War. But I’m confident he would be horrified by the idea of bringing together various World War I related activities provided by adult education organisations across Europe in order to create dialogue, research and discussion. That’s what the European Adult Education Association is planning, and it would be good if others did the same.