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Lest we forget by David Dixon

On Sunday I attended the Remembrance Day service in my local town of Hexham in Northumberland. I haven’t done such a thing for many years and was only at this one because my 9 year old daughter’s Brownie group was asked to attend, along with local Guides, Scouts and Cadets who augmented the soldiers, war veterans and civic dignitaries. I suppose I thought of myself as part of the white poppy brigade and viewed the red poppy affair as too militaristic and nationalistic. I now feel that this view is too simplistic and misguided and the event I observed in Hexham was very pertinent and spiritual because of the reverence paid by the large attendance of young and old and humanised by short biographies of local men who were killed in battle being read out by the town’s mayor. It’s good to be reminded of the individual and collective sacrifice made in the name of freedom, even if you might be suspicious and cynical of the motives of certain world leaders and systems that led to the wars in the first place.  

Despite my reservations, we observed this occasion at my last school when I was a headteacher. For some schools and mine included, we decided to embrace this event more wholeheartedly because the natural community memory base about the two world wars in particular was literally fading into history, with increasing numbers of families not having a single living member with first-hand experiences. Also, we wanted to incorporate it more fully into our programmes of Personal, Social, Health Education & Citizenship education and encourage children to think and discuss conflict- how it arises and what we should do about it, not just at a global level but in our everyday interactions. This also fitted with encouraging children to understand and critique present international conflicts. Another consideration was the need to promote ‘Fundamental British Values’ i.e. Democracy, The rule of law, Individual liberty and Mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith. You can quibble (as many like me have), that there isn’t anything quintessentially ‘British’ about these values and that we need to go way beyond mere ‘tolerance’ of others. However, there is merit in examining individual, group and societal values because for good or ill they are the instigators of beliefs and subsequent behaviour.  

All this has to be age appropriate, but if in school we don’t address current conflict and warfare that is transmitted so starkly through electronic media, then young people can suffer anxiety and also pick up distorted messages that may reinforce prejudices. In the case of my school, we also had to bear in mind that some of our ethnic minority families had fled war zones and other parents had experienced recent active service with the army, so talking about conflict was far more than an ‘academic’ exercise.

If you take remembrance of any kind back to basics, it can be seen as a way of avoiding ‘Shifting Baseline Syndrome’. I feature this in my latest book. The phrase was coined by Daniel Pauly in 1995. He was an ecologist looking at fisheries and came to the conclusion that his peers tended to judge the health of fish stocks by comparing them with how they were at the start of their careers, rather than investigating further back through historical records. As a result, their findings didn’t fully take into account the decline of the size of individual dish or their diminishing numbers. This principle can be applied to many environmental degradations. For example, if you are a child living in a part of London where a playing field was developed into a supermarket in the 1980s, you won’t miss the playing field. The concept has been used in many other ecological studies and also by writers such as Robert Macfarlane, when highlighting how children and adults today tend to know far less about the natural world and so value it less. People don’t realise it has diminished over time because they have no points (baselines) of comparison. Corporate memory loss is a related concept that you can see in many organisations, including schools. ‘Don't it always seem to go, That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone’, as the lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi song says (assuming you know what it was in the first place!). 

Perhaps we need another type of Remembrance Day that highlights what we’ve lost from the natural and human social world in the relatively recent past and how we might restore it. I notice that in the UK very few schools seem to celebrate Earth Day when these sorts of issues are highlighted. If more did and indeed the whole nation did with similar solemnity as with the 11th November occasion, then perhaps we could avoid the Shifting Baseline Syndrome which is allowing us as a species to go out with a whimper rather than a bang.  Perhaps we need totems equivalent to the Cenotaph and other war memorials to help this process of retentive collective memory and thus avoid the ‘Age of Stupid’ so graphically portrayed in the 2009 film of that name. Indigenous people constantly referred back to their ancestors in order to enhance and project their wisdom into the future. Of course, they weren’t desperate to accelerate technological progress, but they knew all about sustainability, hence persisting for tens of thousands of years.

Credit: Simone Lia with permission