Wednesday, 30 January 2013

History? Ancient, innit.

“So, how are you getting on with ‘Wolf Hall’?” I asked someone who’d just come back from a fortnight in Mauritius.  She twisted her mouth.

“It’s quite hard, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said.  “It takes a while to suss out that when she says ‘he’, usually it means ‘Thomas Cromwell’, whom she’s cast as a first person narrator speaking in the third person, and doing so in the historic present tense …  But once you get past that – ”

“Oh no, that wasn’t a problem.  That’s not what I meant,” she said.  “It’s just that I don’t know anything about ancient history.”

“But, you do know about Henry the Eighth, and his wives and the Pope and stuff.”

“Not really,” she replied.  “I kind of ducked all that.”

You probably think I’m conversing with a teenager.  Not at all: this is a highly intelligent, educated and mostly well-informed person eight years younger than me.   I was intrigued by this gap, and would have pursued it further, but dinner was on the table and I had to gulp down the rest of my gin.  We never got back to the subject.

But when I got home I started to think about it.  My first thought was “does it matter?”, and my immediate answer was “yes!”  Unless you have at least some understanding of what was going on in and after the Reformation, you won’t understand a lot of what’s going on today.  Because today’s norms are born of yesterday’s controversies, and to hold a view about, for example, whether it matters who is our next-but-one monarch (if that bothers you) or whether prisoners should be allowed to vote, you need to know how we got to where we are.

On the other hand, I then reflected, I got through more than half my life without any iota of such understanding.  Although I scraped a History O level, that was really no more than a demonstration of my powers of memory.  Thus although I knew (roughly) the names of Henry VIII’s wives, in order, I had no idea why he had to have six, and certainly not how this eventually led to the Civil War, or for that matter the First World War.  History, when I was taught it in the fifties, was almost entirely about the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘when’ of the past; hardly if at all about the ‘why’ and ‘how’. 

As it happens, the path of my life meandered to a point, maybe twenty years ago, where I was suddenly prompted to take an interest.  Needing something to read (in the loo, since you ask), I came across a series of Pelican histories of England, and grabbed one at random.   I remember very clearly the key thought: “Ah, so that’s why William the Conqueror needed to invade us!”  I’ve never looked back.  (Don’t set me any exam papers though.)

So I don’t in any way blame my friend for not knowing what Henry VIII was about.  She received the same rubbish education I did, but never got steered into that particular later-life diversion.  I think (although I don’t know for sure) that today’s teaching of History might be a little bit more educative (in the sense of thought-provoking); but ask me again in five years’ time, when it’s been dragged back to the fifties.


  1. All teenagers seem to be taught in History now is the 20th century, especially the 1930s and '40s. I think it's very limiting. I went to a pretty dismal school but history was taught well - though there were great big gaps, from about 1300 to 1489 and from the Restoration to the 1780s, we were encouraged to think through causes and long-term effects.

  2. One of my son's history teachers was on Radio 4 this week discussing the history curriculum taught today. You can hear it here:

    I think you'll find they do learn about the Reformation and the Civil War. And if they follow the Schools History Project for GCSE then they learn about things such as Medicine through the ages. Possibly the reason why Z thinks they're taught just 20th century is that until recently (I think) her school catered for 14 year olds and up, and so therefore she was really only seeing the more exam-driven content.

  3. I was forced through History 'O' level by Jasper Dodds (as I recall you were) but I think from early adulthood I realised the importance of historical knowledge & understanding to appreciate what's going on in the present world & maybe help with your judgement when you need to use it (like voting in a referendum).
    The many ways in which history can be invoked to illustrate why the world is like it is must surely indicate its essential place in both children's & adults' education. I'm all for the likes of Wolf Hall & Lincoln to help the understanding beyond the classroom. And is there greater risk of illegitimate revisionism in the classroom or entertainment media? Or both?

  4. I did omit year 9 for the sake of brevity, but it does seem a pity that GCSE and A Level students have a constant diet of the 20th Century. So younger students learn nothing on the subject and older ones learn little else. Ronan read History at university so did end up with a broad spectrum of knowledge, but Alex hated the content of his GCSE course so much that it put him off history permanently. I'd have hated it too, but was fortunate enough to learn the Tudors and Stuarts for O Level and the 19th Century for A Level, both very interesting and engaging - of course, in those days the second World War barely counted as history at all.

  5. History was the only 'O' level subject I failed - a slight problem with remembering numbers - oddly enough I got grade 3 for Maths because although most of the arithmetic was wrong I got points for understanding how the stuff worked.
    Wolf Hall is brilliant (and Bring Up the Bodies). I really like it when someone else does the history for me.

  6. I repeat that I was most definitely not taught the logic of history - the 'why' and 'how'. And that Mr Gove is bent in reverting to the 'what', 'who' and 'when' - 'the numbers' as Mig puts it so incisively.

    I thoroughly recommend 'A Short History of England' by Sir Simon Jenkins, which is a carefully wrought counter-balance, as well as reading like a cracking good novel.

  7. It always amazes and infuriates me when, watching a quiz show (I mean a proper one, not Family Fortunes) someone can't answer a question because "it's before my time". What do they mean by that?