Should we teach our children history?

This is one of those questions that prompts the obvious answer of ‘Yes’, but there has been a recent surge of people lining up to stress the importance of children learning history: Simon Schama and Antony Beevor have both had articles on the topic, and so have some less well-known historians. The problem is that all these answers are been given by historians, sometimes lifelong historians. I want to look at the question, instead, from the point of view of an ex-non-historian.

I went to school back in the long lost days of ‘O’ levels and no national curriculum, so my school history really depended on what my teachers were interested in. I can remember vaguely doing a project about Roman Britain at primary school, but that’s about it for my memories of taught history pre-11. In my first two years at secondary I got a brisk run through British (actually English) history. Stone Age to 1485 in the first year, Tudors and Stewarts the second year. That the main highlight in my mind is a particularly good copy I did of a drawing of James I tells you about the rather uninspiring quality of the classes. My third year teacher did try and liven things up, tackling the period up to 1815 with a series of tapes we had to listen to. I have to admit it didn’t work particularly well for me, and I’m not sure now whether that was due to the rather poor audio quality, or just to my lifelong inability to be thrilled by the eighteenth century. After that it was time to decide on our ‘O’ levels. On offer was Social and Economic History or Modern World History (I think 1914-1964?). I voted with my feet and did neither. The next time I studied history formally (other than an abortive attempt at a correspondence course), was in 1995, aged 30, when I had a year’s part-time study leading to an A-level in Ancient History. Three years later, I was starting my MPhil.

On the view of Schama et al, I was an ignorant barbarian between the ages of 13-30. Although the overwhelming majority of my readers will not have known me in that period, and so may be willing to believe that, it is hard to square with the fact that I got one of the top marks in the country for my Ancient History A level. Without ever having been formally trained in history before then, I nevertheless rapidly acquired reasonable ability at historical analysis.

All this makes me rather sceptical of exactly how historical skills are acquired, and whether teaching children history really is the key to doing this. I can quite see that some forms of historical knowledge can be usefully acquired by children at a young age. My daughter is already learning in Year 3 of primary school about different periods of the past, and the fact that things have not always been the way they are now. A basic awareness of chronology, too, can actually be acquired at a fairly early age. I got mine mostly from the Ladybird books on kings and queens (which has the ironic effect that the period of English history that I have most chronological trouble with is the Anglo-Saxons, because the Ladybird books started with 1066). I’m sure that not all children would have the memory for names and dates that I have, but it’s not that difficult to find some kind of chronological spine that subsequent facts can be hung on: you could probably even do it via a history of costumes, or of houses. (The Tudors are the ones who had the black and white timber houses, and they come before the Stuarts and Hatfield House, and after late medieval castles, etc).

It’s also useful if children know at least some outline of British history, how we got to where we are today, but the actual amount that they need to know, and are likely to be able to remember long term, isn’t that great. ‘1066 and all that’ probably is actually about the right size for a memorable history book, as well as being brilliantly memorable. I owe what little knowledge I have of the Occasional Conformity Act entirely to that, for example.

But the real reason that historians normally insist earnestly that children should study history isn’t to acquire that limited pool of knowledge. It’s because history develops your analytical skills, specifically, the ability to answer the questions: ‘Why did it happen?’ and ‘How do we know?’

The problem is that these are actually very difficult questions to find the answer to. ‘Why does it happen?’ means thinking about complex and multi-factorial causal relationships. ‘How do we know?’ means worrying about evidence and its inadequacy. Both these are not skills that it’s easy to teach children. Partly this is due to the fact that they’re not skills that hang together easily with a lot of other things we were taught at ‘O’ level. (I suspect the same is true of GCSE). Most of the subject learning them tended to be of the rule-based sort, and in all school teaching there is the inherent urge to appeal to authority.

But it’s also that learning those kind of skills requires quite a lot of maturity from the student, and I don’t know that I had that at age 13 (for all my brightness). Maybe I could have studied history effectively then, done more than simple regurgitation, but I would say that I was very prone to black and white thinking at least into my early 20s, if not longer (I expected there always to be one correct answer), and I also had a probably unwarranted faith in what books told me. I am not convinced that I would have been mature enough to be a good historian before my 20s at least.

Obviously, other people may have been different: the ‘A’ level syllabuses for 17/18 year olds presume that they’re capable of some rudimentary historical analysis. I’d be interested in hearing from those of you who did study history in your teens how early you felt you were able to start thinking analytically, even creatively about the subject, trying to come up with your own ideas and interpretations, not just repeat what you’d been told.

So, back to my original question: should children learn history? I can certainly see the argument for some kind of minimal framework of knowledge, and any child who’s interested in history should have the chance to study it. But I think if we’re going to sustain an argument about why all children should study history, we need to start thinking and talking a lot more carefully about what children are really capable of, cognitively and socially, and at what age.

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5 thoughts on “Should we teach our children history?

  1. I loved history when I was a child and growing up, and took both English and European history at A Level. But I think it was the romance of it, rather than a proper historical interest, that attracted me, and I was always more interested in the people than in the whole landscape of the time. I don’t think we were encouraged to think critically, merely to know enough about the received wisdom in order to pass our exams.

    One of the reasons I think it’s important to learn the basics about our own history is that it tells us more about who we are, – our cultural identity. This becomes increasingly significant as we mature, in my opinion, and my fear is that because history is not taught sensibly in schools and is not properly integrated and multi-disciplinary, we are losing that sense of identity and no longer really know ‘who we are’, which of course has a knock-on effect on understanding and behaviour.

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  2. I don’t think I’ve commented here before, but I really enjoy reading. I think as far as teaching children history is concerned, it seems to me that while I can think more critically/analytically about history as an adult (mid-30s), the advantage of “learning” history as a child was that I was really much less bothered by the death and violence aspect then. I’m happy to have a knowledge of history that can inform my decisions and social interactions and whatnot, but I’m not sure I could bear to learn about the Holocaust, for example, for the first time as a mother. So that’s my sort of squishy justification for learning history at every age!

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    • Your comments about violence are very interesting – I think you’re right that children tend to be relatively blasé about that, or even enjoy it, hence the success of ‘Horrible Histories’. But I really don’t know the right age for learning about the Holocaust, in particular. I don’t think we ever got taught about that at school, even in history, or via English literature (although we got First World War poems and plays). My knowledge of it has just been absorbed via the culture around me, and I’m not sure that I’ve lost out anything particularly by not learning the more graphic details.

      But now, Holocaust education seems to have become an important part of British schooling, and I’m really not sure it’s a good idea. Partly, it’s because it’s so deliberately history as morality, but also because I’m never entirely sure about what messages are actually being received. You don’t, in a sense, need the Holocaust for children to learn that killing people is wrong, especially because of them belonging to an particular ethnic group. I suspect my 8-year old has already learned that from Harry Potter. And prejudice about particular groups is wrong even though it doesn’t necessarily lead to mass murder.

      I worry that the lesson that may be learned by children from Holocaust education is simply that this must never be allowed to happen again to the Jews; or that this is the kind of behaviour which foreigners, but not the British are guilty of; or that there are always clear, bright lines between what is right and what is wrong; or that it is justified to go to any lengths to stop ‘evil dictators’ (think how many wars are justified by comparisons to Hitler). I don’t know what age my daughter will be learning about the Holocaust, but I don’t want to push it on her too early. And that’s not so much about preserving her innocence, as that I think the real moral message of World War 2 is about collaboration and compromise, and hard it is to stay on the right side in pressurised situations. And again, I don’t think that fits easily with the black and white nature of much teenage thinking. But I may write differently about this in a few years time, as she and her friends gets older and I see her mature, so maybe we should repeat a discussion of this kind every year or two!

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      • I went to a meeting recently where parents were lauding the various middle schools their children attend, and one mother was telling me how pretty much the entire 7th grade year (I think?) revolved around the Holocaust (books! plays! movies!), and how the children got to visit the Museum of Tolerance as a special treat at the end (I’ve heard that some people have to throw up after they visit). I thought, gosh, do they offer Xanax prescriptions along with it?

        I have a 9-year old daughter–I’m very curious to see what she will be learning and how she will react to it as they start to introduce more history at school. So far, the biggest topic they’ve tackled is American immigration (last year). Prior to that, I think the kids learn about slavery/civil rights in the context of Martin Luther King Day, and the pilgrims at Thanksgiving, but that’s about it!

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