• Educating Gender

The Peace of 1815

If you are a student educated in the United States, it is impossible not to be triggered by the phrase, “the War of 1812”. Yes, of course, we all learn about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and World War I and World War II and the Korean War and the Vietnam War...etc, but the War of 1812 has a kind of iconography to it. One of the reasons for this being that it is situated in what seems to be a particular year thus making it easy to remember.

The War of 1812 actually spanned more than two years ending on January 8, 1815. The continued colonialist tendencies of the British coupled with bitter trade conflicts led to a final decisive blow for England and their desire to curb American independence and ambitions. The biggests losers were in fact Canada, which had taken the side of the British empire and native Americans, who also fought on the side of the British in an attempt to gain some sort of independence from the ever expanding and encroaching ambitions of the United States into indigenous lands.

“We do not even have a plural for peace that is parallel to ‘wars’. Because we do not speak of ‘peaces’ we render peace ahistorical and turn it into a hopelessly ‘unrealistic’ ideal”.

The larger question for educators is why, whether you learning about American history (or world history for that matter) in 5th grade, then 8th grade, then 11th grade are we so willing and ready to define the act of war, fighting, violence, human suffering and devastation, as the center by which the learning of history orbits? The other way of framing this question is why aren’t times of peace, engaged, thoughtful and collective decision making, even benchmarks of human progress, the way in which we study and reflect on the nature of history?

I am certainly not advocating for some white washed version of the historical human drama. This might mean that students would never learn about acts of genocide, such as the Holocaust or Cambodia or Rwanda and its intended lessons.

What is striking about the way we study American History is that it works in relationship to what is absent. In other words, we do not study history as a way of examining periods of relative peace in order to understand its constructs and attributes; we study war mainly as a male narrative because it becomes the defining and almost inevitable reality of human beings and society. As the social theorist Elizabeth Kamarack Minnich puts it, “We do not even have a plural for peace that is parallel to ‘wars’. Because we do not speak of ‘peaces’ we render peace ahistorical and turn it into a hopelessly ‘unrealistic’ ideal”.*(See source below) This is the ultimate message that we pass on to our children, consistently and regularly reconstructing this patriarchal and narrow definition of what human history, “must be and will always be”.

No one who understands the impact of a Clara Barton on history would consider a student’s education complete without understanding who she was. So why is she excluded? Why is she absent?

The absence of peace as a potential organizing principle of learning runs parallel, not surprisingly, to the absence of women in history. I have written about this phenomenon previously (see Blood, Lots of Blood, Life Saving, Healthy Blood: Clara Barton and Gender Balanced Curriculum) where Clara Barton during the Civil War provides us with a very different paradigm for the wartime hero. Setting up, manning and supplying field hospitals for both Union and Confederate soldiers and relieving the suffering of thousands of soldiers during America’s most bloody and devastating war, she would provide young students with a much more valuable figure of historical importance than any general I can think of. But she is mostly absent from historical accountings and American History textbooks. No one who understands the impact of a Clara Barton on history would consider a student’s education complete without understanding who she was. So why is she excluded? Why is she absent?

Part of this answer has to do with notions of what is perceived as whole when it is really partial and what it means to exclude as a principle of education, particularly in the study of history. We exclude the notion of peace because it is less defined, more complex, more amorphous. It seems to lack definitive purpose. War, although violent and destructive and the cause of so much suffering, has contours, a seeming beginning, middle, and end -- a clean narrative arc that is somehow “instructive”. From my perspective as an educator, it is lazy history and an even lazier form of education.

A small change in the language of what we assume to be true about history complicates, appropriately and accurately, a narrative which seemed whole but is in fact partial, because it excludes the thinking and representation of women.

Including women more substantially and coherently and honestly into the picture of history would also mean having to reconcile a more complex and often more nuanced, but ultimately more real and meaningful picture of HUMAN history, rather than male history. Minnich gives us an example of how this manifests itself in current history textbooks regarding the suffragist movement. “Women were not ‘given the vote’ in the United States or elsewhere, for example. They wrested it from the hands of those who resisted, just as they struggled to retrieve women’s history”.*(See source below)

A small change in the language of what we assume to be true about history complicates, appropriately and accurately, a narrative which seemed whole but is in fact partial, because it excludes the thinking and representation of women.

To accurately and fairly represent important female figures into the story of history makes it much more messy, but, for this educator, deliciously so. To imagine that women did not have a significant role to play in our historical landscape is like imagining that we never had or desired peace.


*Minnich, Elizabeth K. Transforming Knowledge. 2005. Philadelphia. Temple University Press.

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