My memories of teaching A-Level History are pretty grim. Dragging a class through the ins and outs of, say, why the Whigs lost power in 1841 always seemed to me to be a peculiar waste of time.
This is called the breadth vs depth debate, which in essence is about whether we teach too much detail around too few subjects, causing students to rock up at University having studied in depth some British aspects of a particular era, but with less idea of the broader non-British events which shaped it. (Despite how clever our specialist knowledge might make us sound down the pub).
So students might be ignorant of the formation of the Paris Commune, but they can tell you the names of the maids fired in the Bedchamber Crisis of 1839.
Personally, I always felt that the weight of our own history prevented enough syllabus time being devoted to many significant events that happened to be done by others to others.
This matters, of course, because if we have not heard or learned of something by the time we leave school, doesn’t it imply that the event isn’t important, relevant or even real to us?
Take the utter slaughter of British troops during the First World War. Most young adults, and over the past few years most schoolchildren – in the UK can probably tell you about the Great War and the loss of lives in the trenches. A few more could probably name the battlegrounds of Passchendaele, Ypres, the Somme or Gallipoli. But what about the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians which began in 1915 and lasted a full eight years?
Our familiarity with the tragedy unfolding on the Western side of Europe has shrouded the suffering of the Armenian people as they endured the darkest years imaginable. These were events which have never been given the attention they deserve here in the UK.
Today’s centenary commemorating the beginning of the Armenian Genocide may begin to correct this by provoking global discussion and increased recognition of something that would otherwise pass under the radar of international consciousness.
While the centenary will pass, and the news crews move on, it is important that the Armenian Genocide is not parked in textbook, but is actively taught.
Edelman have been closely involved in the creation and delivery of the 100 LIVES initiative . It’s an enlightened, forward-looking way of engaging a wide audience on the impact of the Armenian genocide (and indeed all genocides), through recording and sharing stories of those who survived, and by recognising and offering gratitude to those who put their own lives on the line to save others. The initiative also includes the creation of the Aurora Prize, which is co-chaired by the Nobel prizewinning author Elie Wiesel and George Clooney.
100 LIVES was launched with a global call for stories from the survivors of the Genocide and those who saved them. The stories will then be shared on the site, and preserved for posterity.
100 LIVES helps build global empathy about a terrible event which has shaped the lives of millions.
If you take time to visit the site and read the stories, you’ll see that, even three generations later, the stories have not lost their power.
In his remarkable work “Night”, Elie Wiesel reminds us of the importance of testimony and recognition: “For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
We can’t change the past but we can continue to teach and educate, ensuring we are learning the right lessons from the past and that the most significant events in history are not lost to us simply because they didn’t happen to us.