H is for History – Don’t forget the ‘STORY’ part!

1940's themed day at great central railway, quorn, leicestershire
The Baldwin Family, 1940’s Theme Day at Great Central Railway, Leicestershire by Wayne Kelly. It’s people and their story that can bring History to life.

Why is History often taught so badly? Firstly I must say that this is not a statement designed to alienate any teachers that may be reading this post – merely an observation based on my experiences as a child. I should also say that I have heard tell of some inspirational History teachers, who have a flair and a talent for bringing to life the past. I just haven’t met any myself. Our History lessons went something like this:

TEACHER: Battle of Hastings!

PUPIL: 1066, sir!

TEACHER: How many wives did Henry VIII have?

PUPIL: 6, sir?

TEACHER: Who led the NAZI’s in World War II?

PUPIL: Errr . . . were they the bad guys, sir?

TEACHER: Come on, come on! Here’s a clue . . . he had a little moustache.

PUPIL: Oh . . .Charlie Chaplin, sir?

TEACHER: Get out, boy.

When I was a lad (he said, as if harkening back to some golden age – but was actually during the 80’s and 90’s) I enjoyed most of my time at school. Like everyone else, I had the subjects I was more drawn to (English and Design) and the others that I often felt were lurking there, directly after lunch, ready to sap the life out of me. One of the latter group was, unfortunately, anything to do with History.

In fact, during my school days, there wasn’t even a subject devoted to History as it was covered by the bland management-speak title of Humanities. In practice Humanities covered Sociology, History and anything else that found itself orphaned by the fickle father known as The National Curriculum. As such it really wasn’t given any kind of focus, and when we did spend a few weeks learning about ‘The Tudors’ or ‘The Industrial Revolution’ it seemed to be taught with the sole purpose of embedding a handful of important names and dates in to our tiny developing minds – like teaching a chimp to play a tune on a piano in reward for a nice ripe banana. Or, in our case, a possible C grade in our GCSE exams.

We were given facts and figures and taught to regurgitate them to pass a test. For me, the result of this was to turn me off to the fascinating and important events of the past. It was only as I got older and was introduced to History in different ways that I realised just how much stuff I had missed out on. Initially it was watching films like The Killing Fields and Schindler’s List, which made me want to actively search out more information from documentaries and books.

More recently, my dad suggested I read Conn Iggulden’s series of novels based on the life of Genghis Khan. I have to admit, I wasn’t entirely convinced that I would even make it through the first chapter, as Historical fiction has never been appealing to me. To my astonishment and delight, I was hooked after the first paragraph and devoured the entire series in a matter of weeks.

What did all of these examples have in common? They all centred around a great story and engaging characters. That those stories and characters were based on real events only served to give them more impact.

Thankfully, in recent times, things have improved somewhat. The Horrible Histories series of books and television programme have managed to attract many more youngsters to a subject that children often thought to be dry and boring. Morpurgo’s brilliant ‘War Horse’ novel, and subsequent play and film, is another excellent example of what can be achieved by focusing on what really matters – telling the story. In the hands of a skilled story-teller – a film-maker, a novelist, a teacher – History can and should be compulsive, addictive and able to engage even the most hardened cynic.

If I can learn to love History – anyone can.

What are your experiences of being taught History? What engages you?

This was my 8th post for the A-Z Blog Challenge. Follow the blog during April for more writing tips, inspirational life posts, short fiction, film-inspired articles and even some songs with audio recordings. Next post I is for Imitation, the sincerest form of flattery – honest!

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35 thoughts on “H is for History – Don’t forget the ‘STORY’ part!

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  1. Fiction is a great way of getting into history (though choose your fiction carefully). These days historical fiction breaks down into so many sub genres there ought be something for everyone.

    Great post as usual.

    1. That is a very good point, Sally. It’s easy to assume that all Historical fiction is well researched and accurate! It’s certainly not the case with many films.

  2. I love history. I was taught in the days before you, when it was a single subject, went on to read history at Uni and became a history teacher, only to discover that schools were no longer teaching it in a way that would inspire love of those amazing stories of people’s lives and events. So I retrained and became a primary school teacher. I still love history though.

    1. Hi Rosalind – so nice to have your perspective. I was worried I may alienate those of you in education, but I can only speak of my experiences. Such a sad situation that an opportunity is being missed.

  3. Urghh humanities, one of the dullest lessons ever inflicted on 14-16 year olds. Would have much preferred to have studied history & geography as separate lessons. Know how to bring the story out and history is infinitely fascinating, leave it out and it’s just a dusty collection of names and dates.

  4. I am ashamed to admit that I went out for coffee during the majority of my history lessons in senior school. I regret it now especially because Mr Atkinson was such a lovely man!

  5. I LOVE history, in complete contrast to your experience, I had a fabulous teacher, Miss Taggert, newly qualified and so passionate about the subject.

    I loved every minute of the lessons, never wanted them to end, and she was dead cool because she was going out with Dave Bartram, the lead singer of Showaddywaddy who were huge at the time.

    Imagine my surprise over thirty years later, when I attended my son’s induction evening at his new school, which was my old one, and there she was – now Mrs Moore, and head of history, and guess what? She remembered me!

    I had a tear in my eye that night. HISTORY ROCKS!

    1. What a difference the right teacher makes. And congratulations on getting Showaddywaddy in there – it is a running joke amongst my friends that not a day goes by in Leicester without them being mentioned! I was lucky enough to get them in our charity Christmas single video a couple of years ago.

  6. Shameful as it is, teachers forced to “teach to the test” or meet state requirements often have to go about nonsense like this. I was gifted with a few passionate and charismatic history teachers, though, who instilled an interest for me. I still read up on newly uncovered history every year.

    1. Yes, in most cases the teacher has their hands tied by the state education system. Sad state of affairs. My daughter is currently being taught Humanities as the powers that be decided to scrap History and Geography. Again.

  7. I was an odd duck when I was small. If I watched Hercules and it interested me, I’d go read up on mythology.

    So in third grade, I was reading about the French Court of the Sun King and Anne Frank while my school was teaching me some dry facts about the town’s history, which I couldn’t care about.

    But something did catch my attention, so I read about the Boer War, because I heard battles were fought from the boundary wall in our back garden…

    So yeah… I didn’t let the school curriculum stop me. 😛

    1. This pretty much sums me up now, Misha! I’m ‘The Wikipedia Kid’ after watching a particular documentary or film. Flitting from one random topic to another.

  8. I went to school in the 60’s and early 70’s most of our history was like you said ,learn the dates and the battles but sometimes we would have a student teacher who loved her subject and brought it to life. I used to buy I think it was Look and Learn books with my pocket money, that was where I learned a lot. Geography was just as bad all about arable farm arming and rotation crops and if you couldn’t draw a map there was no hope for you.

    1. Oh, don’t even get me started on Geography. What little we saw of it during Humanities mainly centred around drawing Ordnance Survey maps! Thanks for taking the time to read the post.

  9. My experiences of history (humanities) at school were much the same and I despised it with a vengeance. I hated it even more than P.E. Yet, since leaving school, and especially since getting back into writing again, it is one of those subjects that I wish I had been interested in back then. More than that, I realise that it wasn’t that I was never interested in it, it was that it was so badly taught. I think they rehashed WW2 and the Tudors more than anything else.

  10. My History experiences are much like yours. The one exception was a high school Russian History class that was taught so enthusiastically and thoroughly that it fueled a love of it in me, as well as for Russian authors. So today, I know more about Russian history than American history. Kinda sad since I’m from America.

    1. Hi Susan. Russian History eh? Modern Russian history? By coincidence I have an idea for a novel partly set in 1960’s/70’s Soviet Union but know very little about the specifics of the period.

  11. I found it interesting later in life to discover how different history gets taught in different countries. Logical of course. There is a beautiful African saying I once read and for the life of me cannot remember it now…Something about history always being written from the hunter’s point of view…

    1. Yes, I know what you mean. The English equivalent is “History is written by the victor.” Very true – the loser often wasn’t around to say much about it! Thanks for stopping by.

    1. Thanks Lynne. I think a large part of it really comes down to what engages and interests you as a person. With the right teacher, choosing the right topics and stories for their audience (the class) it can all be so different.

  12. I still remember coming home from school in Virginia and telling my parents that the teacher had said, in reference to the US Civil War, “We could have one that war if we’d had more fire power.”

    “We” being the South, of course!

    My parents were appalled. There was even a playground fight over the Civil War at that school (which is a pretty funny story, thanks for the reminder, I may have to blog about it sometime!)

    Oh, my… I got sooooooooo sick of the Civil War by the time I turned 10. Luckily, we moved to Washington State at that point, and I had some wonderful teachers… interspersed, alas, with some lousy ones.

    Still, I am so grateful for the good ones!

    As if you couldn’t tell by my rambling, I think your post is spot on. History is so much more interesting when the story behind the events are relayed. It’s what draws me to historical fiction.

    Tui, from #atozchallenge
    p.s. Thanks for the RT today! 🙂

    1. The ‘Civil War’ playground incident sounds like a short story waiting to happen!

      As Barbara says in her comment, this is yet another example of the different history taught depending on your location.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Tui.

  13. History…blech! I actually get nervous just thinking about it. I also had history (social studies) during the 80s and 90s. We were fed timelines and titles but not much else. During college I took a religion class, (I mean what’s more historical than religion?) and began to realize that there were actually stories behind those dates. Real live stories. Can you believe it? I still can’t bring myself to read a damned thing that has historical relevance because I get that sweaty collar feeling, but maybe one day. One can dream….
    Jennifer a.k.a. Urban Gypsy Girl

    1. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for reading and commenting. Good point with regards Religious education – all religion is practically dripping with gripping stories, which is just one of the reasons it tends to burn itself in to the mind (some serious mixing of metaphors going on there – it must be dripping with petrol!)

  14. For me, history got progressively less interesting as (secondary) school progressed. We started out learning about the Romans and Ancient China, which I found fascinating – these foreign worlds (in both space and time!) with incredible stories.

    Somehow, as we got closer to the present day via the Industrial Revolution and World War 2, some of the magic that previously held my interest was no longer there. I can’t say I disliked history, but an overt focus on these latter events failed to hold my interest.

    Probably says more about me than the subject!

  15. I live and breathe history, and have been writing historical fiction for about 25 years now, since I was 8 years old. History was always my favoritest subject, and my BA is in history, with a focus on Russian history. I’m hoping to someday have a Ph.D. in 20th century Russian history, with a focus on GULAG and the Great Terror. I never got why so many people hate history and think it’s boring and irrelevant. I always loved hearing stories about interesting people and learning how people lived in bygone eras, even often fantasizing about finding a door in time and going back to the 18th or 19th century and never returning.

      1. I think it was just an innate love of the past, though I’ve certainly had some awesome history teachers. I still remember the colorful stories my 10th grade European History AP teacher told about some historical figures and events.

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