Saturday, 12 September 2009

Freed from History

Alexander Chancellor writes that history is all the rage at the moment, what with hit TV series by Schama and Starkey, and Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall being favourite to win the Booker (posted on here). He casts around for reasons and believes:
a major one must be the generally dim and dingy role that Britain plays today on the world stage, as well as the various ailments that afflict society at home. A people that is no longer making history looks to the past for reasons to feel proud.
I'm sceptical. I know the papers are peppered with pieces on Britain's renewed declining status. This week, The Spectator makes it their cover story. I'm sure I'm not alone in not giving a flying feck about this. I care about the national debt and the tax rises that are down the pike. But all that nonsense about punching above our weight and managing to keep up the special relationship - I would think 90% of the population couldn't care less.

I think the real reason for history's rising popularity is that it isn't really taught very much in our schools any more and hasn't been for quite a while. Wasn't it virtually dropped from the national curriculum a few years ago? Now that people haven't been put off at school by all that stuff about dates, or more recently, having to imagine you are a peasant on the Long March - not a particularly useful exercise when I did it, as a 15-year old, West Country lad who knew nothing about China, let alone Mao, communism, nationalism, peasants, civil war, etc, etc. - they grow up to have a genuine and unjaded curiosity about the past. They're free to enjoy the good bits of history, the great stories and intriguing explanations. Something of a paradox.

I somehow managed not to get put off. My enthusiasm was only really fired, though, when I was lucky enough to be assigned a fantastic teacher in the sixth-form. Rather than doling out a typical school lesson, he gave us the most brilliant, thought provoking, idea- and character-filled lectures. Probably way above what we should have expected, but it worked for me. It's rather frightening how a chance assignation of a teacher can shape your life.


Bunny Smedley said...

When I was about 12 years old, the teacher we had for English and History was the sort of person who would never, in these more exacting times, be allowed anywhere near children: a charismatic dreamer who had graduated from Harvard, done a lot of odd jobs that added up to very little, travelled around the States in an old VW van covered with dust and filled up to the windscreen with fossils, driftwood and paperbacks, whose idea of a 'lesson' was either to reel off anecdotes, alternatively hilarious and wistful, about everything from the splintering of factions in the Spanish Civil War to the success or otherwise of planned communities, or sometimes just to recite poetry while looking off into the middle distance: Yeats and 'Horatius at the Bridge', e.e. cummings and Longfellow, Francois Villon and Virgil, these latter in the original, even though we knew neither old French or, indeed, much in the way of classical Latin.

It's a mystery why this worked, but to a surprising extent, it did - and what you wrote about your sixth form teacher reminded me of it.

As for the rest of the post - possibly the fact that many works of popular history are relatively well written, with strong narrative drives and a clear and positive relationship to the actual world around us, makes them an improvement on quite a lot of what we're given by way of literature, television and film these days?

And finally, it really is great to have you back.

Kevin Musgrove said...

We had two, wildly divergent, history teachers. One, who moved on when we reached year two, was an ex-Lancashire League cricketer who could make the Punic Wars sound like an early audition of the Ashes of the 70s.

The other spent the break between lessons writing an essay on the rotating blackboard. His 'lesson' was our copying this down verbatim in our books. Every so often he'd ask if we were ready for him to move the next board up. If less than a dozen of us screamed "no!" he'd move it up. Sometimes he'd do it anyway. For homework we'd be told which pages of the text book to copy into our books.

He was later promoted to deputy headmaster.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I was also not put off by History at school: but for the reason that (at the time) I couldn't see the point of it and dropped it as soon as I could. Now I can enjoy it in small doses.

"... promoted to deputy headmaster", eh? ....If you can't do, teach; and if you can't teach...

Sean said...

Yup, Great teachers are gold specks in the panning pan.

2 of them saved me from myself, one a history teacher, whos first job was to cart us all off to Conisborough castle (scotts Ivanhoe) and turned it from a place of summer picnics into a world of dread and fear.

The second was a Math teacher whos first job was to point out to problems that mathematicians had not solved, so lulling us into a mindset believing that they were no better than us, so nothing to fear.

This was in the dying days of Wath Grammer as it turned into Wath Comp,now the worst school in Rotherham (which takes some doing) a beacon to the miners families living aroung that their children if good enough would prove to be good enough, now a shit hole of statist ideology.

No doubt we will see if Mr Flemming and Mr Flemming Smith did a good job when William Hague becomes FS.

Gaw said...

Bunny: Crumbs, what a guy. I can't believe there were many like that around. How lucky! We do have some brilliant talents writing history at the moment. I also wouldn't underestimate some of the TV. Schama's History of Britain, I thought, was very good. Starkey is also exemplary, most of the time - very good at mingling primary sources into his big picture story. Also that thing about the Terror that I posted was superb.

Kevin: God, I'd forgotten about that method of teaching. My biology teacher taught in that way, destroying my desire to continue what is a fascinating subject to 'O' level. Criminal, really.

Gadjo: I hope some of the small doses you enjoy are found here! I try to keep them as small as possible.

Sean: What was great about the grammars was their expectations. I do think one of the main problems with comps is the culture of teaching - in the main, mushy, apologetic, undemanding, anti-competition, anti-excellence. I fear that no institutional reform will succeed without a change in this.