Our First View of the End of the World

Thursday, November 4th, 2004

In Our First View of the End of the World, Stanford professor Terry Castle explains the frustrations of teaching:

What does it mean to remember the First World War? Over the past few years I have been trying to get my students — mostly 19- or 20-year-old Stanford English majors — to learn about, think about, reckon with, remember the Great War. I have been spectacularly unsuccessful. My latest failure came just this spring, in an honors seminar on Virginia Woolf. We were reading Jacob’s Room, the hero of which dies on the Western Front, and I suspected — correctly — that my students knew little about the war or its repercussions. (Make of it what you will, but all of the students except one were female.)

He gives them a PowerPoint overview of the war:

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife dead in their coffins; the idiot kaiser in his skull-helmet; pathetic mobs of Frenchmen, Englishmen, and Germans crowding into recruiting stations in 1914-15; Ypres and Verdun in ruins; trenches and craters and bombed-out churches; and of course lots of dead and dismembered bodies.

The payoff?

When their papers came in, one of the more intelligent young women in the group (or so I had judged her) had produced some garbled late-night drivel about how traumatic it was for Woolf to see the peaceful English countryside devastated by trench warfare during the First World War.

Ah, yes, the devastated English countryside…

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