History and Teenagers March 9, 2013Posted by Beachcombing in : Actualite , trackback
The majority of readers of this blog are from North America and so they might not be aware that historians in Britain are presently fighting each other. The question that is causing all the raucous is how teens should be taught about history: the battlefield is British history but there is clearly here a much wider application. How should modern democratic states educate their future citizens about the origins of the society in which they live? The British debate has been particularly bitchy with some entirely unnecessary mudslinging. But essentially the argument comes down to this. Should kids be given a prescriptive version of history and learn a narrative, which risks being provincial and backwards looking or should teachers be allowed to teach the essence of history through creative exercises like empathy (‘imagine that you are a Roman centurion’ as one critic has caricatured it)? This has got mixed up with a wider debate about discipline in schools: the painful fact is that in a large number of British secondary schools run by the state students no longer do what their teachers tell them.
Beach has a certain sympathy with both sides. However, having taught several hundred American history students history over the last several years he also has one hard idea. If you get fifty American students – aged 19-22 – from various faculties across the humanities into one classroom and ask them to explain how western history breaks down you will get an embarrassing silence. If you put up the classical three-fold division of ancient, medieval and modern (though minus the terms) on the board then only two to five students will be able to confidently put in the labels. Italian students, another reality known to this blogger, would be (a little) better prepared, whereas British students have about the same level of knowledge as their American cousins. Now, of course, there are huge problems with that three-fold division: when did antiquity really end; what is the modern; how does this model apply outside Europe and the Mediterranean? But for anyone interested in western history or history more generally it is the starting place. You have to get this model right before you go off on bold experimental voyages into Indian or renaissance history, in the same way that you need to understand how to paint a face before you can attempt cubism. The fact that eighteen-year-olds leave school without this model is the equivalent of a math teacher allowing students to leave school without the knowledge of division or a geography teacher letting kids graduate without being able to place the continents on a world map.
The only way for a modern country to sensibly teach history is to make sure that model is there from the very start of the first history lesson students ever have, aged nine or ten or eleven: they don’t have to learn events in chronological order but if they cannot place subjects they study in that chronology then we might as well not teach history. An advantage with teaching this model is that it drags students and teachers away from provincialism. By concentrating on the ancient, the medieval and the modern you are effectively adopting the western civ model of history: it is necessary to do ancient in the slave markets of Athens, medieval in the siege camps outside Jerusalem, renaissance in the minting rooms of the Florin… Yes, this just trades in one form of the provincial for the other. What about China, India and the Incas? But the truth is that humanity has not yet the maturity to integrate all of human experience into one narrative. And as we are talking about the future education of western democracies then it is right that the narrative we choose is western. If students find themselves in good schools where there is a nice balance between discipline and creativity then, of course, teachers should be encouraged to take things deeper: to ask what it really was like to be a centurion or to take the kids out to dig up the playing field in search of medieval pottery: screw football… But the sorry state of secondary education in most western countries means that this is a luxury we can not afford.
10/March/2013: KMH writes in ‘You are so right. Secondary schools, and perhaps the whole concept of public education, needs to be revamped. Of course it all began a couple centuries ago when society was simpler and basic beliefs more uniform and prevalent across the population. Now there is more diversity, teaching as a profession has lost prestige, and the media (the telly) dominates from almost birth to death. The remedy should involve treating those being educated as individuals rather than just members of a group. This can be done with more emphasis on testing (with computerization) to determine a student’s true progress, regardless of the level of the group. So, any class might contain a wide range of ages. A separation of the testing function from the teaching function will free the teacher to generate more enthusiasm for the course material and develop sincere relations with students. Also, grading on the curve must be abandoned to eliminate competition in the classroom - a real psychological impediment to the learning process. Also, the tradition of granting degrees is simplistic and unnecessary (except perhaps for the Ph.D). What is actually needed to know is the detailed history of the student’s testing performance, along with accompanying teacher comments and any extra-curricular activities. All this presumes more reliance on computerization, but even now we can’t live in the industrial world without computer assistance.’ AB writes: Beach my younger brother who like me passed his 11-Plus still managed to leave school believing Rome was in Britain which at first makes him sound incredibly thick but what actually happened was he’d been fed all this stuff about the Ancient Romans being in Britain circa our joining the EU and no one bothered to put any of it in context in the rush to push the idea of the New Roman Empire. And it’s that disconnect from context which’s one of the problem with all subjects when you’re dealing with students who don’t possess inner tuning forks which automatically thrum into life on encountering nerdery like maths chemistry Italian or indeed history. But worse than that I suggest’s the fact they teach everything back to front history being the perfect example of this. One of the incredibly important things about history’s it gives us insights about why the world’s the way it is today and therefore clues how it might develop tomorrow to the degree you could actually argue it’s far more concerned with the present or even the future than the past. Yet in schools it’s taught almost as ridiculously as conducting a trial where the jury’re bombarded with all these apparently inane details like what such and such a person had for breakfast on a certain day and what bus she caught and all the people she encountered along the way and only after days or even weeks of witnesses telling their particular version of events finally revealing the point of everything was the jury now have to decide on someone’s guilt in a murder case.’ Thanks AB and KMH!