LEAD ARTICLE: “What shall we tell the children? Reflections on how to address concerns over potential nuclear conflict in Europe“ by NAPCE’s Max Biddulph
What shall we tell the children? Reflections on how to address concerns over potential nuclear conflict in Europe – By Max Biddulph
Reporting on 6 October 2022, The New York Times quoted U.S. President Joe Biden in a speech made to a fund-raising event the previous evening, as saying ‘that the risk of nuclear conflict in the world had not been so high since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis’.
A year ago, this would have been an astonishing statement to make but since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the word ‘nuclear’ is now regularly used in media environments which are monitored by people of all ages, including children and young people.
For those of us old enough to have experienced previous eras of superpower tensions in the form the cold war in the 1980s, the existence of a nuclear threat is not new.
In the British media of the time, the consequences of using nuclear weapons was graphically articulated by Raymond Briggs’ cartoon ‘When the Wind blows’ (1982) and the BBC drama ‘Threads’ (1984).
Driven by alarms triggered by this media reporting, I undertook a literature review to determine the ways in which children and young people might be processing the current narrative about nuclear weapons that is unfolding and the way in which they might be supported by education professionals.
Unsurprisingly, there appears to be a dearth of recent research, most of the sources I located being written in the 1980s and 1990s. That said, as I engaged with them, I realised that they still have real currency in the present situation.
For example, William Beardslee alerts us to the ways in which young people come to understand the consequences of using nuclear weapons:
‘The evidence indicates that many youngsters are bewildered and perplexed by the threat of nuclear war. Some are frankly troubled or frightened. They often find out about it alone, through the media, or from their peers, without help or guidance from their usual circle of caring adults. Helplessness and a sense of powerlessness, as well as a profound sense of fear about the future, may accompany the realization. (Beardslee 1986, abstract).
The silence that surrounds discussion of this subject pervades both the home and education environments, in fact Lifton and Markusen (1988) refer to this as ‘nuclear numbing’ produced as Beardslee (ibid) observes, by the fact that:
‘It is difficult for anyone to think about these matters, let alone know how to talk to or deal with young people about them. Beyond this, it is disturbing to think that the threat of nuclear war in and of itself might be having an impact on our children’s development. Furthermore, the subject itself, precisely because it is so painful and yet so politically controversial, is inherently divisive’.
Given the above, it is of course completely understandable as to why anyone may wish to avoid the emotive and anxiety-promoting thoughts of the consequences of using nuclear weapons.
That said Buck (2017) offers a counter argument, pointing to the cost to the mental well-being of generations of North Americans living with this spectre with a subsequent silent societal response, and Christie and Hanley (1994) argue that colluding with silence is problematic as discussion is both the problem and the solution to the feelings of powerlessness that young people experience.
Interestingly, in all the literature I read, education is consistently positioned as providing not just an understanding of nuclear issues but also more optimistically, articulating hope for a future.
In all probability, the next generation of world leaders are likely to be engaged with schooling at the present time, and Christie and Hanley (ibid) are at pains to point out, an opportunity exists here to educate and reassure young people.
The teaching and conversation about this subject needs to go beyond information-giving, to inspire young people to take action as the problem solvers and peace makers of tomorrow.
Given their frontline role, teachers charged with pastoral responsibility have opportunities both in the pastoral curriculum e.g. Personal, Social Education and in their daily one to one interactions with students to address this issue.
In the UK, help is at hand in the form of updates posted on their websites in 2022 from both the Department for Education and Education Scotland (see links below), who provide valuable resources for teachers finding themselves engaged in discussion with young people regarding the Ukraine conflict.
These resources are numerous, drawn from a wide range of commentaries and rigorous in their suggestions e.g. teaching critical thinking when making sense of reporting as well as providing strategies to manage the anxiety that listening to the media may trigger.
And yet in my review of the 40+ resources presented, the phenomenon of ‘nuclear numbing’ is alive and well, the ‘n’ word being completely absent.
For novices and experienced practitioners alike, the prospect of discussing nuclear confrontation in classrooms feels like daunting, uncharted territory.
What to do? Be proactive and introduce the subject or watch and wait and be lead by young people themselves?
Whichever scenario applies, practitioners need to be prepared for the subject being raised and may be able to draw on their experience of teaching other sensitive issues.
Two things immediately stand out:
- Beardslee (1986) presenting the findings of classroom practice in North America in the 1980s, argues that preparation for any discussion of this topic necessarily involves undertaking a personal values audit within the educator themselves. ‘Knowledge’ in this regard needs to go beyond facts and interrogate personal positioning both from a values and feelings point of view
- As with the teaching of other sensitive issues, lone working is not a good idea. Collaboration with colleagues is sensible, and frame any discussion of this issue within any policies on the teaching of sensitive issues.
Buck (2017) points to the need for directness and honesty in answering classroom questions, foregrounding rationality which has the potential to take the charge out of alarmist thoughts.
Beardslee’s (ibid) research is optimistic in this regard in that it reveals that there is an opportunity to introduce the prospect of hope which comes with dialogue and activism.
Beardslee (1986) argues:
‘This can only occur when they are fully informed and carefully introduced to the issue, supported in their understanding of it, and then willing to take action. This can occur only when they have a vision, a hope for the future, which includes the belief that nuclear war can be prevented and that their actions have an effect. This must be the central aim of our educational efforts…it is essential that young people will not be left alone with their fears. It is essential that they make contact with others who are willing to hear them and to share their concerns’.
What a challenge.
Max Biddulph, School of Education, University of Nottingham
Beardslee, W. 1986. Children and adolescents perceptions of the threat of nuclear war: implications of recent studies. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK219180/ Accessed: 07.11.22
Buck, S. 2017. Fear of nuclear annihilation scarred children growing up in the Cold War, studies later showed. https://timeline.com/nuclear-war-child-psychology-d1ff491b5fe0 Accessed: 07.11.22
Christie, D. and Hanley, C.P. 1994. Some psychological effects of nuclear war education on adolescents during cold war II. Political Psychology, 15 (2) pp177-199
Lifton, R. and Markusen, E. 1988. The Genocidal Mentality. New York: Basic Books
Department for Education (DfE), 2022. https://educationhub.blog.gov.uk/2022/02/25/help-for-teachers-and-families-to-talk-to-pupils-about-russias-invasion-of-ukraine-and-how-to-help-them-avoid-misinformation/ Accessed: 07.11.22
Education Scotland, 2022. Teaching about conflict and war: Support for educators. https://education.gov.scot/improvement/learning-resources/teaching-about-conflict-and-war-support-for-educators/ Accessed: 07.11.22