“Eye-opening if not revelatory”: Teaching and Learning Humanitarian History

by Sarah Glassford


Before taking this course I thought that humanitarianism was just

a nice way of asking for money.  You donate and someone tries

to solve a problem.  But through the readings and the emergency

relief assignment/exercise it has become clear that the job is less

straightforward than that.       – Haley K.


Those of us who research and write in the area of humanitarian history are well aware of the complexities of aid, both on the giving and receiving ends of the equation.  But when we have a chance to teach that history, what preconceptions do our students bring to the classroom, and what do they take away with them at the end of the course?

Founding Myths Poster Project-Medecins Sans Frontieres

During the Winter 2016 semester I had the privilege of teaching the history of humanitarianism to an exceptionally bright, motivated group of eleven students (nine traditional undergraduates, and two students doing a qualifying year for their MA), as part of the University of New Brunswick–Fredericton History Department’s Honours program (see syllabus HERE).  UNB History’s format for Honours seminars involves nine weeks of discussion based around common readings followed by three weeks of students workshopping their own research papers together.  When we came to the end of the nine weeks of readings and discussion, I asked the students to reflect on what they had learned to that point.  What follows is a survey of the main themes that emerged from these reflections.


Wanting to help everyone, and having to make the tough choices,

makes you realize it’s not all cut & dry.          – Lisa P.-E.

Deciding who to help, in itself, can be a painful and challenging

choice.             – Kayla M.


Although much of our class time revolved around traditional discussion, I also threw several  hands-on activities into the mix.  For one such in-class assignment, the students were divided into small groups and assigned to a fictional country facing humanitarian crises. They also received a fictional budget and an array of aid options (including price tags).  They were then given the task of deciding who and how to help, and what sort of aid timeline they would follow – including when to stop.  The purpose of the activity was to convey the fact that the aid organizations and relief efforts we were been reading about in a historical context had to make hard decisions in complex circumstances.  It also hammered home the fact that financial and material resources limit the kinds of aid it is possible to give.  Three students (all quoted above) explicitly referred to this activity as having dramatically changed their outlook on humanitarian aid.

Founding Myths Poster Project-CARE

I do have to say that sometimes the class should try to examine the

readings from a non-retrospective stand point.           – Stewart D.


One student mentioned his classmates’ tendency in discussion to continually return to their own experiences of humanitarian aid, present-day humanitarian crises, and contemporary attitudes toward humanitarianism.  His peers’ reflections further emphasized this inclination, since most of them commented directly upon how our historical discussions had altered their understandings of contemporary humanitarianism.  On one level, I consider this a real strength of the subject.  It can sometimes be difficult to engage students’ interest in aspects of a past that seems terribly remote;  the relevance of humanitarian history, on the other hand, is conveyed in their everyday lives through venues ranging from traditional TV newscasts to social media campaigns to campus leaflets advertising summer voluntourism opportunities.  It is exciting and gratifying to teach a subject in which students are readily able to apply our historical concepts to the present day, and to think more critically about contemporary global society.  But I also recognize the inherent danger of equating past with present as if the two were interchangeable.  Part of my job in our class discussions, therefore, is to keep a hand on the conversational rudder, steering it back to the historical material when it drifts too far off course.  This often takes the form of posing questions that force the students to recognize the present-ism that sometimes creeps into their assessments of the past.  (“Interesting.  Would European leaders in 1919 have shared your opinion?”)


It really surprises me that organizations have ever and continue

to get any form of work done when they have to deal with so many

people outside of the people they give aid to.              – Jayanna M.

I have come to realize that even when humanitarianism and

humanitarian organizations appear to be apolitical, it often gets

caught up in politics and the affairs of states.  – Ryan C.


Virtually every student mentioned somewhere in their reflection the issue of humanitarian aid and politics.  The “successes and (mostly) failures” (as one student phrased it) of organizations trying to uphold ideals of neutral, impartial, apolitical action, as explored in our readings, clearly made an impression upon students whose previous exposure to humanitarianism had primarily been through school-based fundraising and aid work, or NGO advertising campaigns.  Based upon my experience teaching the course several years ago, I made a point of warning the students upfront that by the third or fourth week of the course many of them might start to feel a bit cynical about humanitarian aid.  As predicted, the class as a whole did visibly go through a period of growing disillusionment, but in time it seemed to give way to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how politics have shaped the goals, organizations, means, and methods of humanitarian aid.  In the end, many of the students appear to have accepted as more or less inevitable one of Michael Barnett’s “humanitarian paradoxes” outlined in his survey Empire of Humanity (which we read in its entirety) – namely, that humanitarianism cannot help being a product of the world it aspires to civilize.

Founding Myths Poster Project-Amnesty International

Although I do see it as generally a good thing I can see how humanitarianism

can be a vehicle for non-humanitarian agendas.  I also view my own culture

in a different way because of it – as I realized how superior we thought we

were… and we really aren’t.               – Sadie G.

It has also been illuminating to have discussions with the other students in

the seminar, who, in their youthful idealism, still believe in the mass-marketed

messages that aid organizations perpetuate.  I have a habit of tending towards

cynicism, so it allows for interesting debates.  – Marc G.


Perhaps the clearest theme to emerge from the students’ reflections, and one that runs through all of their comments regardless of the specific focus of their remarks, is that of intellectual growth.  During our nine weeks of reading and discussion they had the ideas they brought with them to the course challenged, complicated, and in many cases changed.  In this sense, teaching and learning the history of humanitarianism accomplishes exactly what the Arts and Humanities aspire to do.


~ Sarah Glassford was an Assistant Professor in the History Department at the University of New Brunswick–Fredericton during the 2015-16 academic year.  She is the author of Mobilizing Mercy:  A History of the Canadian Red Cross (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Fall 2016), and a founding member of the CNHH.


1 Comment

  1. Sonya de Laat

    Thank you for sharing these experiences and insights!