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.