How is ancient warfare taught in schools? Part 1: Scotland, by Jana Mauri Marlborough

Jana Mauri Marlborough is a third-year student in the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews. She recently worked as an Undergraduate Research Assistant on the Visualising War project, to support a new strand of research into how ancient warfare is taught and assessed in schools. This research is still in its very early stages, but in the following blog Jana outlines some of her initial findings, based on her analysis of Scottish school curricula, some interviews with school teachers, and a survey which you can find (and fill in!) here

Key findings:

  • The teaching of historical wars in Scotland is often quite insular and Britain/Scotland-centered.
  • War takes a back seat in Scottish curricula relative to other aspects of history, and even at Advanced Higher it is studied less for its own sake and more as part of wider social/political history topics.
  • The curriculum and assessments encourage a considerably more empathic approach to the study of fictional wars than to the study of historical wars.
  • Teachers themselves often go above and beyond the prescribed curricula/their duties to add a more human/humanising element to the study of historical wars; they need more support in this.

‘Ancient warfare has always been one of my favourite subjects within Ancient History. When the opportunity to apply for an undergraduate research position within the Visualising War project came along, I felt that it was the perfect opportunity to sharpen my research skills and help Dr König in her fascinating project. I was delighted to be selected along with my colleague Anna Coopey and eager to get to work.

My role in this project consisted of two distinct tasks; analysing the Classical Studies and Modern History curricula for Scottish secondary schools and comparing them to understand how warfare is being taught in Scottish schools. Scotland has only one education board, the SQA, and their website is the sole source I used for this part of my research. The other half of the project focused on distributing a survey for education professionals and scheduling interviews with secondary school teachers – which proved rather difficult, since we were working around the start of term dates in Scotland and teachers were super busy!

At the very start of my long journey of looking at curriculum specifications, I bumped into something that caught my attention. Bearing in mind that I was not educated in Britain myself, I was somewhat surprised to see how British-focused the curricula were. To learn that World War I is taught as part of the Scottish History curriculum and not World History left me almost speechless. This insularity is reflected within Classical Studies as well, where one of the recurring themes is Roman Britain, with the Boudican Revolt featuring as one of the two wars included in the curriculum up to Higher level.

Generally speaking, the Scottish Classical Studies curriculum is not, at least on paper, particularly focused on teaching war. It offers a combination of socio-political and religious themes, from Athenian democracy to life in Pompeii, and addresses those subjects rather broadly in its initial three years (N3, N4, and N5). The curriculum becomes considerably more robust in year 6, with the Advanced Higher course. It is in year 6 that pupils make a considerable knowledge jump and are introduced to some material that is also reviewed in sub-honours university courses. 

Even so, while war gets a lot more airtime in Advanced Higher compared with at other levels, it is never given centre stage. Instead, it appears to be relegated to a supporting role in the teaching of contemporary historiography and ancient literature.

In Advanced Higher, students become closely acquainted with the likes of Herodotus and Livy and look at multiple accounts of the Trojan War, including Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad. It was through looking at the Advanced Higher curriculum that I observed something disconcerting: when working with historiography depicting real wars, the main goal of the course seemed to be the analysis of contemporary sources and its setbacks from a historian’s point of view, while the study of fictional wars came with a considerably more empathetic approach. Past papers suggest that when fictional wars were being studied, the impacts of warfare were more broadly considered, going beyond the wellbeing and struggles faced by soldiers to shed light on how their absence and the uncertainty of their fate were felt by the loved ones that they left behind and their communities. This emphasis (and the equivalent gap in the study of historical wars) chimed with my colleague Anna Coopey’s findings for the English curricula.

Despite curriculum limitations, I was pleased to find out that teachers are very much committed to an empathetic approach when teaching pupils about war and often promote classroom activities that help pupils understand the impacts of war in their communities. One of our interviewees, a Modern History teacher from Falkirk, mentioned that practices such as bringing veterans into the classroom, organising class trips to battle sites and war cemeteries, and using class time to discuss ethical issues surrounding warfare are some of the tactics he uses in his classroom to separate real war from Call of Duty idealisations that pupils might have, allowing for a more realistic view of war and its lasting impact on families and communities. 

Teachers also mentioned that, however helpful, those activities are, they are not part of the SQA curriculum, and it is ultimately up to the teachers’ availability and generosity to organise such events. In fact, teachers often must resort to using class time within other social disciplines, such as Religious and Moral Studies, to have these conversations surrounding the morality of war, as well as spending their own free time organising and conducting field trips and other activities, since (according to them) the curricula can be somewhat restrictive, especially in upper years, where the main goal of the course is to prepare pupils for exams. 

Having a vested interest in both ancient warfare and education, I started my research with certain biases and preconceptions, perhaps expecting to find a lot more glorification of raw masculinity and militarism than I actually did. Instead, I encountered something completely different but perhaps as alarming. The rigidity of the curriculum and its emphasis on examinations and technical knowledge seem to have replaced a comprehensive approach to the teaching of History, ancient or modern. Along with that, the insularity of the curriculum, and the apparent absence of empathy shown in the SQA specifications when addressing real wars, are the most concerning points I encountered in my research. 

On to the more positive side: teachers are fully aware of the need to connect pupils with the humane side of History and provide them with experiences that encourage empathy, despite being limited by the curricula on what they can and cannot do. For children to understand the impacts of war, whether today or in ancient times, the curricula must have space for shared experiences that foster empathy and not just mechanically focus on analysing ancient text and writing exams.’

Together with Anna’s findings, Jana’s analysis of school curricula and interviews with school teachers will inform the Visualising War project’s wider research into how war/wars are taught in schools at all levels and in different parts of the world. This research is an important strand of our work looking at the habits of visualising war which children and young people form as they grow up. In time, we hope to speak to many more teachers, curriculum designers, qualifications authorities and pupils, and to co-produce some materials in consultation with them which will support their work. 

Our survey for school teachers remains open: if you have experience of teaching any kind of war or conflict in schools, please do fill it in. Thank you!