Knowing Our History

I woke this morning (I am writing this on Sunday 3rd March) to the reported controversy over Michael Gove’s plans for a change to the History curriculum in British schools, as can be read here. 

In a nutshell, Gove wants the current system of distributed ‘islands’ of historical exploration replaced by a continuous, comprehensive history of Britain, taught across the age range of 5 to 14.

I almost gasped with envy; I would give anything to have been taught history in such a manner myself. Whilst I admittedly have a woefully lacking historical knowledge–couldn’t, in fact, answer half of the questions asked to young children being interviewed on the news–I would have relished the opportunity to have been instructed not only on the Egyptians, the Tudors, the World Wars, Suffrage the Russian Gulags and the run of Medieval monarchies; but, rather, I would have valued far greater the knowledge of how those things related to one another; how the tapestry of our history has been woven by these great turnings of the tide, of great men and women, of battle, war and penury.

Alas, I was instructed in a manner vaguely indicative of a history composed of discrete bundles of happenings, in which only great landmark events were ever of any real importance –between which people merely ‘lived’, and nothing of any consequence happened at all–and every now and then a great, juddering jolt would utterly transform the entire form and manner of worldwide power distribution and society in an instant (the Egyptians suddenly, out of the blue, hung up their Canopic jars and handed the torch over to the Romans, with absolutely nothing in between–and, naturally, nothing else happened during the reign of either civilisation elsewhere in the world).

It is, it seems, currently down to the individual to go forth into the great ocean of historical writings, without a hand to hold or light to follow, in order to gain any form of understanding with regard to the continuity of humanity’s history over the last few millennia.

Gove’s plan could potentially put an end to that. Children could finally be instructed on the true consequences of occurrences of significant historical worth; of how each period and civilisation influenced its descendants, and how the nature of the present truly took shape over the centuries.

However, Gove’s plan also leans towards a manner of teaching reminiscent of the ‘repetition, repetition, repetition’ mantra of old; that children should merely have factual information drilled into them in a vague effort to ensure that they recall certain pieces of information deemed to be somehow more important than all else.

But this is not how an understanding of matters is reached. True knowledge does not emerge from a mere ability to recall what another has dictated; beasts abound–parrots, for example–are capable of such repetition.  And yet we would never think for a moment that they understood the content of such a sentence; no, they are merely after the piece of fruit you’re holding, just as the budding young student is after that A grade.

Instead, debate is necessary. The ‘moral fact’ of the evil of the Holocaust is irrelevant; for there is no purpose in merely stating that ‘moral fact’ to one who knows nothing of the Holocaust. It means nothing. It has no inherent ability to convey the true horror of what occurred.

Only having an individual presented with the factual information and allowing them to reach the same conclusion as is consensus independently can true understanding be considered to have been reached; anything short of that is mere regurgitation, with nothing to indicate that any kind of conveyance of ‘truth’ has occurred whatsoever.

This links in with an earlier article that I posted, which you can read here, regarding the way that mathematics is approached in schools. The very same attitude can be found to be prevalent there; whilst children’s knowledge of mathematics/history may be intact (or at least apparently so) when they leave school, it becomes immediately apparent under inspection that they have no true understanding of what they have been taught.

This has nothing to do with the children or their intellects, but rather is the result of an assumption that the process of drilling facts into people’s heads can be construed to have in some way ‘taught them’.

– “The Battle of Trafalgar took place in 1815.”

– “C² = A² + B²”

Both are typical nuggets of ‘fact’ that could be said to be lurking in the nether regions of the typical student’s mind. But do they necessarily understand what either of those things are, mean, refer to, or how they can be put to any kid of use? Does knowing the date of a person’s birth and death teach you anything about them?

Do students, in fact, know something about these events? Have they learned anything at all?

All it takes is to ask for their interpretation of the Battle of Trafalgar’s consequences, or place a right-angled triangle before them and ask for the length of the hypotenuse.

In a shocking number of cases, you get nada.

Therefore, whilst instructing children in a comprehensive manner with regard to the history of our nation is an admirable one, it would all surely come to nothing if coupled with the notion of merely shovelling the words of noted historians down the throats of the nation’s youths verbatim, without any necessity or encouragement for that information to be understood, considered, debated upon, or indeed ever put to any use.

What, indeed, is the use in teaching history at all if it isn’t to provide a window into the past; to wield nostalgia in a manner which allows our society as a whole to retain as much of its identity as possible, and ensure that past mistakes are avoided by future generations?

For, surely, merely stating the ‘absolute importance’ of a sound knowledge of history in any well-rounded individual, only to then act upon the notion that an understanding of such knowledge is irrelevant, undermines the very principle on which such a championing of the subject is founded upon.

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One thought on “Knowing Our History

  1. Good day! I know this is kinda off topic but I’d figured I’d ask.
    Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest authoring a blog article or vice-versa?
    My website goes over a lot of the same subjects as yours and I believe we could greatly benefit from each other.
    If you happen to be interested feel free to shoot me an email.
    I look forward to hearing from you! Superb blog by the way!

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