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!