Teaching Human Rights and the Spanish Civil War

March 9, 2012

Participants in ALBA's Chicago Institute, December 2011. Photo Lisa Oppenheim

As we begin the fifth year of ALBA’s teaching programs for high school instructors, we are detecting positive patterns in the anonymous evaluations each teacher is asked to complete at the end of the program.

Last December in Chicago, for example, a male world history teacher indicated that he had begun the session with slight familiarity with the Spanish Civil War and admitted he would have been “very uncomfortable” if asked to teach it. After six hours in our seminar, which included reading documents scanned from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives in the Tamiment Library at NYU, the same teacher expressed much greater confidence, saying “very likely” he’d be teaching it soon. “The revisionist concept that World War II began with the Spanish Civil War is particularly compelling and provocative,” he wrote, “and I plan to incorporate it into my teaching.” He was one of nearly twenty teachers in the Chicago public schools who rated the ALBA program “Excellent.”

We hear that type of response frequently, and this year ALBA expects to expand the project into additional districts around the country. In January, the Ohio Humanities Council awarded ALBA a matching grant of $14,000 for a week-long teaching institute at Oberlin College that will accommodate twenty Ohio teachers of Spanish, English and social studies. During the coming months, we’ll announce other sites for teaching opportunities following the success in 2011 in New York City; Bergen County, New Jersey; and Chicago. Other seminars have been held in Tampa, Florida, and Alameda County, California. Veteran teachers not only introduce young people to the subject, but often go on to teach it for years to come.

Peter Carroll at ALBA's Chicago Institute, December 2011. Photo Lisa Oppenheim

Like the students they teach, U.S. high school teachers of social studies and Spanish seldom have an understanding of the Spanish Civil War as a run-up to World War II. Few have ever heard about the U.S. volunteers who formed the Lincoln Brigade or know that they fought in a racially integrated army over a decade before President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the U.S. Army. The role of women volunteers like Evelyn Hutchins, Salaria Kea, and Ruth Davidow invariably ignites interest in these forgotten feminists. And discussions of the Jewish volunteers link the soldiers of the International Brigades to the failure to stop Hitler and prevent the Holocaust.

Teaching the Spanish Civil War, in other words, brings a fresh outlook to subjects that are already in the existing curricula: the origins of World War II, totalitarian threats to democracy, U.S. isolationism vs. internationalism, and the unexpected consequences that led to the Cold War, anti-communist campaigns, and the acceptance of General Franco’s dictatorship as part of the western alliance in the postwar era. Teachers of English and Spanish literature can find a wealth of sources in the writings of Hemingway, Lorca, Neruda, and many other less famous writers.

The Spanish Civil War also illuminates issues of human rights. Picasso’s Guernica symbolizes a form of terror tactics that democratic people abhorred, even before air attacks on civilians became common practice in World War II and subsequent wars.

Besides classroom activities, ALBA also encourages our teachers to teach other teachers by attending regional conferences of professional educators, contributing articles, and creating original lesson plans and curricula that can be published both in print and online. ALBA’s website provides numerous sources and samples.

These programs are supported by a grant from the Puffin Foundation and from additional contributions that make future expansion possible. For information on how you can support our work, contact info@alba-valb.org.

Peter N. Carroll chairs ALBA’s committee on teaching.