Portraying Violence in the Classroom

John Hennessy has an incredibly thought provoking post up over at Frederickburg Remembered, which addresses the challenges of “portraying violence” in public history.  No one is better positioned to speak on such a subject:

Having worked on or with battle sites for much of my career (which seems impossibly long these days), there is no denying the temptation to use examples of violence in public programs. Nothing gets the attention of an audience faster than the description of a horrific death or a sanguine landscape in battle’s aftermath. But, do such things really help us get our listeners to a place of greater understanding? Or are we merely indulging our own and our visitors’ morbid curiosity?

As a history teacher, who offers an entire elective on the Civil War, I can relate to the temptation that John describes.  I constantly struggle with this question when discussing battles and the experiences of the common soldiers.  My biggest problem is a strong belief that having never experienced a battlefield/combat I am simply not qualified to give voice to it.  I usually feel like an impostor when doing so.  There are a few movies that I’ve used with some success in trying to give life to a Civil War battlefield, but even here I am uncomfortable rendering any kind of judgment as to their accuracy.  I often wonder what my students are thinking when watching these scenes.  Is it simply entertainment?  Are they glorifying the event and thus minimizing the true brutality that it attempts to represent?  And I wonder, as John does, whether I am feeding my students’ “morbid curiosity.”

This is not to suggest that I steer clear entirely from the subject either; rather, I almost always allow the soldiers to speak for themselves along with utilizing other primary sources such as photographs.  The letters offer windows into an experience that most of us will thankfully never have to encounter.  My students will have their own emotional response following the reading of a letter or the viewing of a photograph.  As a teacher I do my best to guide them intellectually to a place where they can achieve some level of understanding that they can take with them after they leave the course.  Even that level of understanding must be student driven.  And in a democratic nation it is essential that we do our best to understand and appreciate the consequences of war for the individuals involved and the nation as a whole.  Most of us sailed through the last 8 years of war without having to pay much attention at all.  My students were certainly not engaged.

But isn’t that the danger here?  As skeptical as I am about my ability to properly teach the subject of war isn’t the failure to do so to be left with a generation that is simply unprepared to think critically or emotionally about the consequences of war?

Anyway, head on over to John’s site for a much more interesting discussion.

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15 comments… add one
  • Matt Karlsen Dec 14, 2010 @ 10:15

    I was thinking about this post last night, when I watched Last of the Mohicans with my 13 year old daughter. She told me that she wasn’t able to pay attention to the political/historical issues because she was too distracted/consumed by the violence. Didn’t seem to be an issue for my 10 year old son. I guess the point is that this issue will play out differently in the learning process for each of your students.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 14, 2010 @ 13:47

      Thanks for the comment, Matt.

  • Dick Stanley Dec 6, 2010 @ 10:53

    Good points, Kevin. But I think even a combat veteran would have trouble deciding how to portray violence in a classroom. And probably end up not doing very much of it. Despite the prevalence of violence in modern “entertainment.” A clinical discussion of the size and performance of the ammunition used at close range in the Civil War might be all you’d need to get the point across.

    I heard a movie critic the other day say that, fifty years ago, movies were about the things of the heart and violence was relegated to Road Runner, etc. cartoons. Nowadays, it’s the reverse, with Toy Story III making an audience weep, while movies compete to out-gore each other.

  • Bruce Miller Dec 6, 2010 @ 10:15

    Kevin, I can’t address the specific teaching issues you’re addressing. But I do know that one of the biggest problems in Americans’ general approach to war and foreign policy is that there is a considerable glorification, sometimes idolization of war in public discussions of it. Even the biggest enthusiast for war normally still feels compelled to say that they regard war as “sometimes” a “necessary evil”. But in practice, the *evil* part gets ignored. Or transformed into glorious stories of individual heroism or the celebration of supposed “wars of liberation”. That’s part of what makes Lincoln’s speeches like the Gettysburg Address so enduring. He was acutely aware that he needed to rally his side to fight and kill and die on behalf of the cause. Yet he was also able to convey a sense of the sadness and tragedy of war while doing so.

  • Matt McKeon Nov 30, 2010 @ 12:53

    I hesitated to show “Saving Pvt. Ryan” Omaha Beach landing sequence, not because its too violent, but because it turns the most violent sequence in cinema into another rollercoaster ride. Eventually I decided not to show it. The kids are numbed to film violence. Sometimes a little detail from a written account or a still picture allows the student to make a more profound insight with the past.

  • Nat Turners Son Nov 30, 2010 @ 12:13

    Kids have seen more violence via TV, movies and Video games now than previous generations.
    If I was teaching HS I would use the Pictures from the Period that were published in Harpers.

  • Andy Hall Nov 30, 2010 @ 6:43

    Kevin, have you used that Pamplin Park video in the classroom? As you’ve noted, it’s gruesome stuff, and I wonder what place (if any) you see for it in your class.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 30, 2010 @ 6:52

      I used it a few weeks ago and my students were not impressed. In fact, at some of the more gruesome points in the film they laughed. I am still trying to figure out what to say about the experience.

  • Shek Nov 30, 2010 @ 2:54

    I think your approach is fine, although I would offer that there isn’t a typical battlefield experience, as each person reacts differently to same events, which is then amplified by the fact that not everyone experiences the same events, and so I’d offer that from that perspective, no one is necessarily qualified to authoritatively speak about the battlefield experience. On a separate note, if you are looking for something that is most analogous to the experience of continual combat that a soldier faces today, I’d offer up the Overland Campaign, with its continual grind and contact as the closest I’ve seen thus far in my Civil War readings. The scale of casualties is clearly off the charts compared to casualties today, but the pale of continuous combat is there and you can see that in the writings of soldiers and how it degraded performance.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 30, 2010 @ 4:04


      Thanks for the feedback. I agree with you, which is why I stick closely to primary sources so as to give students an appreciation for the personal. The Overland Campaign is an ideal focus because it offers so many avenues from which to understand the level of violence and death. We can look at the connection with the home front as well as the obvious political implications. Right now I am working with a student on a year-long project that focuses on the battlefields of 1864 and how soldiers coped with so much death and destruction.

      • Margaret D. Blough Nov 30, 2010 @ 4:43

        Many years ago I read an article in Military History Quarterly about the US Army studies on combat fatigue, as it was known then, headed by Dr. William Menninger.The work arose out of the observations by military doctors during World War I of shell shock (as it was known in World War I) and other psychiatric issues. It was that work, which included studies of combat effectiveness, that formed the foundation for limitations in the length tours of duty (it was found that even the best units lost effectiveness after a certain point out of sheer physical and mental exhaustion among other factors) among other advances. The Menningers were also pioneers, after the war, in the treatment of mental disorders in returning veterans which arose out of their military service. When I read about the multiple, prolonged tours in the current volunteer military, it concerned me, based on what I read in that article.

  • Jonathan Dresner Nov 29, 2010 @ 17:53

    I feel more or less about portraying violence as I feel about portraying anything else. I have a responsibility to give my students a chance to empathize with historical actors, through as full a context and as primary a source set as I can provide, given the strictures of the course (it’s easier, in other words, in more focused courses than lower-level surveys). Even in the World surveys, when I’m talking about changes in military technology, changes in social structure, changes in food technology and culture, much of what makes them historically important is how they were experienced. I don’t make a point of sharing images like that, though: it takes too much time to contextualize them properly when I’m dashing through decades.

    I don’t use much historical fiction or movies for the same reason; I use literature of the period as historical/cultural evidence, which is hard enough.

    The larger question of preparing students for empathy in the present is a tough one. I think historical study does promote empathy and understanding, but I also think that pedagogy which insists on empathy and understanding as a measurable result is likely to be experienced as pedantic.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 30, 2010 @ 2:25


      Thanks for the comment. I agree that it’s easier in more focused courses simply because you have more time to get at the subject at hand. I also question my use of the images for the reasons mentioned in the post. The contextualization is absolutely crucial if we hope to leave our students with more than just an emotional response. I tend to take a Kantian view of the emotions, which is why I am much more focused on providing an intellectual framework with which to understand these particular sources. For example, I might discuss with my students how these images changed the way civilians thought about war.

      Your final point is a good one. I agree that history can be a wonderful tool with which to encourage empathy among our students. Empathy is an interesting concept because it includes both an intellectual and emotional component. The trick is to somehow strike the right balance. I guess when it comes to teaching war I find it more difficult to find my way to that balance.

      • Jonathan Dresner Nov 30, 2010 @ 6:05

        I agree that we often don’t deal with the emotional side of historical experience well, either in our sources or in our classrooms. I haven’t figured out yet if that’s a bug or a feature.

        For me, the balance of teaching about war isn’t in the violence: the “experience” of war includes motivation, training, eating (there’s a great little chapter in Andrew Smith’s Eating History which captures some of the culinary effects of the Civil War), community, education (what is military training, after all, but a kind of education?), taxation, organization, effects on civilians, technological creativity (a running theme in my World survey is the innovations of war) and the lasting effects of both military and civilian aspects of the technology.

        It’s a bit out of your field, but you might enjoy Paul Cohen’s book History in Three Keys, which is his multi-valent attempt to encapsulate the Boxer Uprising in China. The “three keys” of the title represent three different historiographical traditions which he uses: a straightforward analytical discussion of the origins of the uprising, emphasizing social and environmental history; a theoretically daring experiential analysis of the uprising, including heavy use of missionary documentation and wonderfully sophisticated discussions of magical thinking and rumor; a historiographical chronicle of the ways in which the Boxer Uprising has been used as a historical/political story in the century since.

        It’s a model which would work well for a lot of historical moments, and I’m quite surprised there hasn’t been more imitation of his method. I love using it in the classroom: the analytical section is good; the experiential section is extremely engaging; the historiographical discussion is a little harder to sell but is a great example of ideological politicization of history.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 30, 2010 @ 6:27

          Thanks for the suggestion. I don’t know if you are familiar with Mark Smith, but he has written quite a bit on sensory history and the American South. Here is his description:

          “I’m knee-deep in the “field” of sensory history-a vibrant area of historical inquiry dedicated to examining the roles played by olfaction, hearing, touch, and taste (as well as vision) in shaping the past. My concern is to help restore the full sensory texture of history and examine what the senses in addition to seeing might be able to tell us about historical experience and causation.”


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