On Teaching to Remember

Memorial Day, like many other military-related holidays, is a day when I find myself needing to watch my mouth. Usually, I sift through editorials until I find one I can stomach, and let someone else do the talking for me. I can usually find someone, like Justin Doolittle at Salon, willing to print the words "we do not need to thank the troops for every breath we take." I can usually find a meme floating around Facebook, pointing out the historical context for Memorial Day as one of commemoration by recently freed slaves, seeking a lasting, permanent peace. I can even find veterans calling for an end to, rather than a glorification of, militarization and war (though, to be fair, Rachel sent that one my way). 

This Memorial Day, however, I'm left with a question: How do I talk about this with my students? 

It would seem simple enough. Any news service geared toward students (Time For Kids, NewsELA, and the like) will undoubtedly have resources available to guide discussion of Memorial Day. Time For Kids even mentioned in a short article published yesterday the origins of the holiday in a prayer for permanent peace. If I taught slightly older students, I might even be able to use the Zinn Education Project's blog post on the history of Decoration Day

The problem for me, as an educator, lies in what we see the goal of this remembrance to be. I think it's great, for example, to provide students - especially students of color - with an accurate picture of the role of ex-slaves in holidays like Memorial Day. More often, though, students learn simply "to remember." Devoid of context or critical analysis, this learning to remember strikes me as little more than hero worship. 

It is not an obvious point to me why children must "remember." To be sure, the war mongers and politicians who continue to send men and women to die have a responsibility to remember. Adults in our society share responsibility not only for allowing our wars to continue, but for caring for those veterans changed forever by war. Are these the responsibility of children?  

I doubt that many would place this burden on children, which leads me to believe that there is something else at stake here. So often, members of the United States military, whether active duty or veterans, are described as those who have made the "greatest sacrifice." A military career in this sense is presented as the noblest of paths. This is one thing when presented to students who have an array of career and educational pathways open to them. It strikes me as something very different when presented to poor children and children of color. 

There is no small amount of debate over the role of economics in military recruiting. There is a long tradition of criticism arguing that military recruiters target marginalized populations - especially poor communities and communities of color. Others point to data suggesting that this is less true in the years following 9/11. In any case, the fact remains that military recruitment is simply a different beast when presented to children with fewer educational and employment prospects. This is especially true in an environment of education where, due to the realities of education lending and debt, the paths most often hailed as roads "out" (out of poverty, out of the hood, etc.)  lead instead to continued inequity.  I can not in good conscience push my students - even in the most subtle of ways - towards enlisting to fight in wars that are not for their benefit, for oligarchs that have never cared about their success or well being. 

So what, then, is the role of the educator working with students from such marginalized populations around days of such heightened civic pride and ritual? Do we simply ignore it? Do we instead seek out resources like the Zinn Education Project, seeking an opportunity to highlight connections to our students' shared history? Or can we instead find a way to teach critically; to teach our students how to think on a day when so often they are told what to think?

If anyone has some ideas, I'm all ears.