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Dr Phil Wickham,  Curator of The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, shows the display to workshop participants.

The Empathy Effect: Teaching Literature about the World Wars and the Holocaust

Academics, educational practitioners, playwrights and filmakers gathered at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum to consider the role empathy plays in the teaching of the two world wars, including the Holocaust.

The event, part of the AHRC-funded Teaching and Learning War Research Network led by Professor Catriona Pennell of the University of Exeter’s History department, took place on Wednesday, September 12.

Teachers across the world use literary texts and creative writing exercises to teach about conflict, some of the most famous examples being Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse (1982) or John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006).

Such use of literary texts is not limited to literature classes, but extends to history lessons, albeit with slightly different aims and framing, and it extends to questions of remembrance, too: how literary texts shape the teaching of certain narratives about the past and why we should continue to value and appreciate these.

The workshop sought to explore the use of literary texts in teaching about the history and the remembrance of the First and Second World Wars and the Holocaust. In their March 2017 report, Literature in Britain Today, the Royal Society of Literature concluded that one of the three most important benefits of reading literature, in the eyes of the British public, was to help readers see other points of view.

Participants interrogated this claim in relation to the use of war writing in the classroom to shed light on the practice of and rationale behind using literary texts and creative writing exercises in teaching about war and genocide.

The workshop took place alongside a new temporary display outside the upper gallery of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum entitled ‘Filming Conflict: The Child’s Perspective’. The exhibition utilised items from the museum’s collection looking at how war is experienced by children, how films have depicted children caught up in conflict, particularly the world wars of the twentieth century, and how children learn about war through moving images.

The Curator of The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University, Dr Phil Wickham, said: “The museum was delighted to be a partner in this important project. We have contributed a public exhibition from our collections which looks at how films have represented children in war and how children learn about war from what they see on screen. The display is free and open to all.”

During the workshop the winners of the network’s creative writing competition were also announced. Entries were received from secondary level pupils across the United Kingdom and the judging panel, headed by children’s author Hilary Robinson, awarded prizes in two age categories: 11-13 and 14-15 years.

For Head Judge, Hilary Robinson: “The Creative Writing competition gave entrants an opportunity to respond imaginatively to, and with thoughtful reflection on, the brutality and horrors of war. Entrants captured both the innocence of youth and the folly of man in profound and unique ways. In what, at times, seems like an increasingly fragmented world, it is reassuring to know that a competition such as this also serves another purpose. It encourages the next generation to consider the vital importance of pursuing peaceful solutions to global challenges. As such it was a privilege to be involved.”

For more information on the network’s activities, please visit the project website: or follow the project via twitter @teachlearnwar

Date: 20 September 2018

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