Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Teaching History.

Whilst watching a programme about the Royal Airforce the other night, Caroline and I were having a chat about the history we were taught at school. I recollected that in junior school I did pick up something about the Romans to which she replied, “You were lucky”. Now I recollect that in those early years I also learned about William the Conqueror and Queen Elizabeth. However, our later schooling was precisely the same: endless boring lessons about the fucking Industrial Revolution.

I came out of school with the impression that the greatest events in British history involved Arkwright’s Spinning jenny, Jethro Tull’s seed drill and big Northern factories belching out coal smoke. It seemed to me that the world was changed by the new ways cotton was turned into sheets. Now certainly the Industrial Revolution was a big thing, but it’s not going to stimulate a pupil’s interest in the past and, perhaps, kids should be taught something about other historical events like, oh, I don’t know, a couple of wars we had at the beginning of the last century. I wonder, is history still taught in the same way?

One of the touchstones of ‘modern’ teaching has been this idea that pupils must be engaged with a subject, their little flighty minds must be teased and tempted by treats to get them interested. If this is the case, why the boring Industrial Revolution? Probably because it caused a ‘social’ revolution and anything prior to it in the minds of the indoctrinaires who run our education system is irrelevant, unless of course it can be thoroughly traduced in some way. Doubtless lessons are now taught about inequality, poverty and slavery (for which we must dip our heads in shame and apologise), whilst Trafalgar, Waterloo and Agincourt are glossed over or ignored as rather embarrassing.

Anyway, the final upshot of this conversation was my contention that history should be taught backwards. Both Caroline and I learned more about our history after leaving school, by wide reading, many excellent TV programmes, and in her case research into family history, and that last is where you get a great deal of engagement with the past. Might it be better to teach history by engaging pupils in this way? Okay kids, find what your grandfather or grandmother did, find out what their parents did and we’ll start from there. Almost certainly some of the pupils will have relatives who fought in the World Wars, almost certainly they’ll have relatives who died of tuberculosis, some will have been evacuated, some in the land army. From this point of engagement the teacher can then move backwards, whilst the pupils know that what is being taught is actually relevant to them.

Of course, one problem with this is the kids must know something of their family’s past. What did dad do? He buggered off. What about your mum and dad? Dunno, I wus in care.

Your family history? Take pride in three generations on the dole.


Olaf said...

I (and my class of the time) were taught a lot of history in our last year at primary school. Our teacher was a bit of a Scottish history buff and he used that as a basis for his lessons. English was based on that history, maths was based on trade of the time etc etc.

We were taught all the gory bits about people being hung drawn and quartered. Witches being burned etc etc.

He take the class round the local town and point out where the witches were burned and criminals hung. Being 11 we lapped this up and I can still remember it.

Secondary school..I can't even remember the topics.

My primary teacher was enthusiastic, passionate even, about teaching history. He was also as unPC as you could get, talked to us as if we were beyond our years and allowed us to do things we wouldn't go near in other classes (electric drills and chisels being involved).

The other teachers hated him. But his results were so good (academically and behaviourally) he was untouchable. Happy days.

bascule said...

Strangely, this is a subject I've been thinking a lot about since yesterday.

My 14Yr stepdaughter came home from school and was talking about her "science" lesson. They had watched a video about nuclear weapons and how awful they are. Mentioning how the pilots of the Enola Gay laughed and joked as they dropped the bomb. Plus it mentioned the bomb the Russians dropped on Kazakhstan at the end of the war? It stated the Japanese death toll at many millions?

This was a professionally put together video and is presumably being watched in many schools.

Fucking incredible! We are doomed.

Neal Asher said...

Olaf, probably a rare breed nowadays, or the kind of teacher subject to frequent reprimands for daring to step out of accepted doctrine.

Bascule, I wonder if your daughter has already seen 'The Inconvenient Truth' yet, or if that's something that comes later in her education.

As for the pilots of the Enola Gay laughing. Perhaps they did, so what's the problem? Criticizing such behaviour only demonstrates an utter lack of comprehension on the part of the critic. If I was delivering such a blow to an enemy who is murdering, enslaving and torturing my countrymen and shows no sign of stopping until dead, I would be laughing like a drain.

They say hindsight is twenty twenty, well apparently not when you're liberal left.

daniel said...

the government's education doctrine is everything. this means that teaching is structured to get the little snowflakes to pass exams and nothing else (certainly not passing on "knowledge"). also because of this approach teaching standards have fallen: there is a decline in the knowledge base of the teachers themselves, which is then passed along what is taught to the puils. hence, in english, you get shakespeare (despite the plethora of other authors both old and new that would be worth studying). in history you get tudors/stewarts, the industrial revolution and ww2. ask a teacher anything outside of these things and you will probably get a blank stare (a bit like in the simpsons when lisa asked her teacher something outside of the "teacher's guide" book). gone are the days of teaching broad knowledge and then letting the pupils apply said knowedge to exams, because those that can't would fail, and we can't have failing under new labour - will no-one think of their human rights?!

Kirby Uber said...


i think you are correct. pass exams, to present successful numbers, and not a hint at even attempting actual education.

olaf and neal,

it infuriates me that a government/education sanctioned film is teaching children to hate nuclear power via fear of nuclear weapons, so they can pop home and shame their parents into the same.

make no mistake, that is the intent. brain wash the children to mind the parents.

Anonymous said...

In American public schools, when I was a kid, the perennial longest unit in American history was the civil rights movement, every year. I would have had no idea about any of the history B.C. had my parents not taken my younger brother and me to museums fairly often and to the city library every week, and let us take out stacks of whatever struck our fancies.

slothman said...

The first time I really got interested in history was with James Burke’s Connections and The Day the Universe Changed; they showed how history fit together causally. I later discovered Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe/Cartoon History of the Modern World series, which provide a superb overview of history with enough humor to make things more memorable than a dreary textbook. (I’d never use them as a quotable source, but as high-level overview with a detailed bibliography in the back for further research, they’re great.)

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

"He take the class round the local town and point out where the witches were burned and criminals hung. Being 11 we lapped this up and I can still remember it."

dig this guy up, dust off the cobwebs and red checkmarks and get him on youtube. the new online garbageon mammoth teaching- messiah.

cats are raelly neet an can eets meet.
worldwide doom doomed by dum dum.

Neal Asher said...

I'd already got an interest in prehistory what with fossil collecting on the East coast as a kid, but I have to wonder when my interest in human history germinated. It didn't happen in school. I rather suspect it came via science fiction and when, in early years, I started writing fantasy. Books that stick in my mind are ones like Ben Bova's Orion in which the horse of Troy legend arose from siege towers covered with horse skins and the fall of the walls of Jericho involving trumpets blowing to cover the sound of the undermining tunnels being dug. Also a big part of it was knowing, yeah, there were the Romans, there was the Industrial Revolution, this king or that queen, and then actually making the small but significant mental step of realising, oh, they're all connected. Next comes things like, oh, right, there's a direct connection between the Pope and the Roman emperors. Joining the dots, which was something that should have been impressed on me at school.

Neal Asher said...

Nice to see the state is getting right in there with the indoctrination:

Watch your children, parents, they'll be reporting you to their political officers soon.

raphael said...

education in general is really at a low point right now, it seems.
i remember the few real characters among the teachers i had - and they never had to fear pupils dozing off or someone not passing the tests. they managed to make the stuff interesting, by whatever means, see olafs teacher. one of my favorite teachers still is a good friend of mine - he was openly goth at school and invited his pupils to all the parties he threw. and DAMN is he good at throwing parties. (and he is good at explaining history)

i dont know what its like in the UK or anywhere else - but when i see how the most underbrained idiots who make their a-levels through mere memorizing and no bit of understanding or a hint of reflecting what it is they are learning - they all go "mm, i think id like to work with children, theyre so cute. and have holidays like back in school. and hey, teachers are looked for." - even all the exams for becoming a teacher are tailored to this special breed: lots and lots of learning and alotting points for unconnected bits of remembered words. we are breeding incompetent teachers - no wonder kids suck at school and dont show any bit of a will to make something of their lifes. (then comes PISA and everyone goes "oooh, its all the school system, its not socially just! well have to fix that and then, kids will be smarter!")

meh, im rambling... but yeah, youre all spot on, guys. kids need to be interested - and since a lot of kids are naturally curious, its quite a task to kill all that off.

.e. Jim Shannon said...

Growing up in the lower mainland BC n the 1960’s, history wasn’t high on SD #43’s agenda for elementary schools 6-8. It was mostly glossed over. In High school you got a bit of history but not much more then elementary and most of it was Canadian history, which for me was pretty boring. I think real history here in Canada is taught more at the college level. Any history I’ve learned was growing up in the 1960’s. The canvas was large enough to witness history first hand as it happened;-)

madtom said...

It's a mistake to point fingers at left/right wingers, bureaucrats or timeservers for education's problems. Including the all-wrong approach to teaching history.

You're not incorrect to point those fingers, but it's still a mistake. If you're honest about it, you'll run out of fingers before you're half done.

Fact is, there are many forces independently pushing education to be mediocre, uninspiring, and very incomplete.

I'm a retired chem/physics teacher, and I know. I've seen the same kinds of problems in public schools and private, the best and some of the "less good", in California, Oregon, Washington, and New Zealand.

I used to have this posted on my classroom wall, right over the board:

Keep them ignorant and they're easier to fool,
Keep them divided, and they're easier to rule.
(motto of every ruling class in history)

Yes, even in chemistry. Alberto Culver didn't want you to know about hexachlorophene (remember it, oldies, in your mouthwash, chewing gum, shampoo, liquid soap?), and coerced the FDA into keeping quiet about the alarming research results.

Then about 50 babies were killed in a French hospital that accidentally made up their own baby powder with 6% hexachlorophene instead of the 3% that was in the Johnson & Johnson baby powder on every market's shelves.

That's history now, coz it was about 35 years ago. Somehow it seems to have slipped out of people's minds, even though the same companies still run the same government and still pretend it is of, by and for the people.

History? Hell, just read the news. Or try to summarize it in a text message so the victims-in-training might possibly read it.

Karl said...

Although my socio-political views are poles apart from your own (doesn't stop me enjoying your blog, however!), I have to agree with pretty much all you have to say on the topic of history teaching... just thinking back to my own lessons back in the 70s induces a state of morbid lethargy and an uncontrollable urge to eat by shoes.

But more recently, following recommendations from a bunch of friends having a diverse range of political perspectives - from uber Marxist through to MTTT (More Thatcher Than Thatcher) - I've found myself introduced to a range of historical writings that make me wonder just what was going wrong with schooling on the subject, and realise just how much I had missed out on.

If the time/inclination takes you (and you have not done so already, of course), I strongly recommend diving into such books as:

Niall Ferguson's "Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World". (Uncompromising, unapologetic, and deeply uncomfortable at times for a left-leaning wuss like me - loved every bit of it!)

Antony Beevor's "Berlin: The Downfall 1945". (My appreciation was helped by the fact that the mother of a close friend of mine was one of the german youth holding out against the soviets in one of the outlying villages whose story features in the book. And the controlling party's desperate use of telephone books to monitor the invasion of Berlin is almost too funny to be true...)

Anyway, enough said. And for those of you reading this blog who have not tackled Hilldiggers yet, do so! Now! By far the best thing yet from the ever improving pen of Mr Asher!