Learning from history
September 8, 2013 11 Comments
What has the First World War got to do with our lives today?
This was the basis of a thought-provoking day of learning and discussion organised by the WEA’s Harrogate Branch yesterday. It was a curtain-raiser for courses that the volunteer-led Branch has planned for the autumn term.
Sue McGeever, a family history student, brought the subject to life with a fascinating account of women’s contributions to the war effort. Her research had led her to find out more about women who had volunteered with the YMCA to run recreational and welfare facilities and tuck shops for troops on the Western Front.
Sue had unearthed letters and photographs describing the women’s experiences. She made them very real and relevant to contemporary life. Her story of Betty Stevenson from Harrogate was especially poignant and it was hard to believe that this was Sue’s first public presentation. An account of Betty Stevenson’s life is available here.
Henry Irving adopted a different approach to the subject, looking at historical legacies of the war almost a hundred years after it began. He asked us to note and share what we knew about the war and why it was important. Comparisons with the current situation in Syria were almost inevitable. Amongst other intriguing points, he revealed that only 9% of respondents to a survey could name accurately the British Prime Minister who was in office at the start of hostilities. We were left wondering who would remember the details of current politicians’ attitudes to the Middle East and what future generations will conclude when the present time fades into history.
Henry has blogged about teaching history for social purpose. You can read some of his blogs here.
Andrew Hamilton’s session, based on his grandfather’s first-hand diary record of trench warfare and the Christmas truce of 1914, raised all sorts of issues about the complex relationships between soldiers who were capable of a nervous truce in the middle of a brutal conflict where they found themselves on opposing sides. Comparing the bravery of soldiers who saw active service with others who were imprisoned for their beliefs as conscientious objectors added another dimension. There’s more information on Andrew’s 2009 book about his grandfather’s experiences here.
Wider discussions ranged from the legacy of domestic violence prompted by shell shock and ingrained in family behaviours in subsequent generations to depictions of the historical period in art, literature and general culture. Forthcoming courses will pick up on some of these themes.
With a visit from the local MP, Andrew Jones, a presentation from Sam Findlay describing resources available in Harrogate Library, displays of students’ work and plenty of tea, coffee and food, this was an imaginative and stimulating start to Harrogate Branch’s 2013-14 programme. It was good to see several tutors supporting the day’s events and being on hand to answer questions about their courses.
It was planned as a drop-in event so the organisers should be very pleased by the number of people who took part and stayed for the full day. It was a practical example of how exploration of a single theme can lead in many different directions for learning and a reminder of the Latin etymology of the word education – “e ducere”, meaning, “to lead out”.