History Around Us

History Around Us


'History is a fable that everyone believes.' So wrote the 18th Century philosopher and playwrite Voltaire. This module is mainly concerned with the history that is real, the history that still exists around us in the shape of buildings, artefacts and landscapes, the history which is part of our everyday lives. At the same time it develops the approach taken in the introductory teaching and learning module in its search for what we might call a 'comprehensive' or three dimensional view of the past, one that is clearly a workable alternative to the present.

The historian Christine Carpenter sums up the thinking underlying the module when she writes: 'no account of the past will ever be remotely free from anachronism unless the historian can enter imaginatively into the mind-set of the main participants. This is not the much derided empathy of the GCSE examination but an understanding of the preconceptions which would have shaped their responses as individual actors and as social groups.' (Carpenter C, 1997, The Wars of the Roses, Cambridge University Press, p 267)

Such an an approach is not an easy one to follow especially when teaching young children. How can they imagine the mind-set of someone living in Roman Britain or Tudor England when their own mind-set is far from complete? As the American historian Carlin Bartin says: 'to the extent that the past exists for us, it is created from bit and pieces of our own experience. This is no less so when we imagine it to be different...' (Barton C., 1993, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans, Princetown University Press, p 5). What this means is what many teachers of history already know: children need to encounter the past at a level which accords with their experience of the present. Only then will they be able to make comparisons with what they already know and understand.

Some elements of the historic environment - houses, roads, shops, schools - lie within the experience of all children of school age. Other aspects - castles, churches, factories - relate to ways of life that are very different. To the extent that all these buildings are real they offer a challenge to childrens' questioning nature and a basis for the development of their imagination. Nevertheless we should never assume that they mean the same to children as they do to adults who know their history. The need to build bridges with the childrens' own experience remains the same.

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Human nature

In the introductory module we saw how societies function through the interplay of systems - ways of doing things that can be as simple as making a pot or as complex as explaining the universe. A building like a cathedral will incorporate a host of such systems, some of them very ordinary, some of them technical, some representing the truths of the Christian religion through symbols whose meanings have to be learned. What makes its decipherment possible is the common ingredient of human nature. However differently we experience life its building blocks remain the same, just as there are many different languages in the world but all have the same basic system of grammar and syntax.

Before we can learn a new language we must first understand our own. Any search for a comprehensive explanation of the past must therefore start with ourselves. Back in the 16th century Shakespeare had a go at defining human nature: 'what a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension (understanding) how like a god, the beauty of the world the paragon of animals...' (Hamlet) Modern science has not been so kind: 'a forest ape that became a hunting ape that became a territorial ape that has become a cultural ape..' (Desmond Morris)

The truth is that each of us is a mixture of what we have inherited and what experience has taught us. Morris stresses what we might call the biological agenda - the defining characteristics of homo sapiens sapiens which we all share. This isn't just our physical shape but includes many of our basic behaviour patterns, including such important aspects of life as who we find attractive.

The great psychologist Carl Jung suggested that the biological agenda includes a series of 'archetypes' - mental figures 'hard-wired' within our brains that model the kind of person we need to be at each stage in our life. Just as our bodies pass through certain obvious stages in the process of growing up, so do our minds. A mind which is 'confined' shows the same problems of distortion and disfigurement as a body. As proof for his theory Jung demonstrated the recurrence of his archetypes in art and literature. The theory also accounts for the hero-worship of figures such as David Beckham and Thomas More - the first typical of the adolescent, the second more appropriate to someone wanting to play a role in public life. These people represent the archetypes in real life; they awaken in us the knowledge of our own potential and are essential to our healthy development as individuals.

David Beckham is a modern footballer and Thomas More was a Tudor lawyer and statesman. Both occupations belong to a specific time and society. They are instances of the cultural expression of the biological agenda and as such are the product of our ability through language to develop and transmit ideas. They are evidence of a second kind of evolution that has been going on for at least the last five thousand years - an evolution in the shape of the mind. This evolution creates cultural preferences and norms that are, to a certain extent, independent of biology, and which can, because of their importance to the individual, contradict it. More's belief in his principles and his inability to conceive of an existence that contradicted them led to his death of the scaffold - a death he might have prevented almost up to the last moment. Other acts of self-sacrifice are more instinctive but all rest ultimately on the individual's idea of themselves, an idea that is built up through the internal dialogue called consciousness.

Consciousness is of course unique to human beings and it appears remarkably early. By the age of seven almost all children of normal intelligence will have begun to form a concept of themselves which defines right and wrong and good and evil, what is 'me' and what is not 'me'. What is 'not me' can include aspects of the biological agenda, hence the experience of temptation and the need for laws to reinforce self-discipline - laws that are periodically seen as oppressive and yet are obviously necessary if society isn't going to dissolve into a chaos of selfish desires.

A simple questionnaire distributed at the beginning of the module aims to discover which aspects of personality and behaviour belong to the biological agenda and which are the product of culture. In past years criminality has been placed within the 'learned' category whereas gender orientation is now believed to be biologically rather than environmentally determined. Intelligence tends to divide groups down the middle. It is clear that use and opportunity make a great difference but can a teacher put in 'what nature has left out' (quote from 'Chariots of Fire')? What we can say is this: both factors are likely to be at work in any historical situation and the ones which the children are likely to understand first are the biological i.e the ones we all share. Hence the fascination with Roman lavatorial arrangements and the media-inspired reduction of most historical events to conflicts over sex, power and greed.

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Case study: Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Henry VIII's marital adventures are usually explained by his need to have an unchallenged heir. But why was this so important? The answer lies in the institution of hereditary monarchy and the difficulties it was designed to prevent. Despite a certain social mobility Henry stood at the apex of a society stratified by inheritance. Uncertainty over the succession could undermine the law which made every man safe in the enjoyment of his own. It could invalidate gains made through royal grant and goodwill. It could plunge an aspiring man to the depths of misfortune if he backed the wrong horse in a civil war.

It is against this background that Henry VIII's affair with Anne Boleyn needs to be seen. To marry Anne the king had not only divorced his first wife but also the Pope. Early in 1536 three things happened to weaken her position. Firstly Henry had a near fatal accident whilst taking part in a tournament as a result of which Anne miscarried the baby she was carrying; it would have been the longed for boy. Then Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife died, clearing the way for a fresh start. Finally Henry fell in love with Jane Seymour, a much quieter spirit than the tempestuous Anne.

Illustration: Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

Henry VIII's principal minister from 1531 to 1540. He rose to power through Anne Boleyn then held on to it by arranging her downfall.

Even so, Anne's fall was remarkably swift. On May 1st she was arrested and charged with adultery. Within two weeks she had been tried and beheaded. Why the haste? The man responsible for Anne's trial and execution was Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal, best described as Henry's 'Mr Fix-it'. Cromwell knew Henry and he knew Anne. Had Anne been given an opportunity to plead her case with Henry personally, she would have been forgiven. Her return to favour would have been the signal for his own downfall. No one in Henry VIII's court could afford to give their enemies a second chance.

Which elements in this story are children going to find hard to understand? That Anne was a 'foxy chick', smart as well as glamorous, is clear. That Henry was a king and might be expected to have his own way will also be fairly straightforward. But what about the ambitions of others and the world outside the court? And what about Henry's Catholic conscience that constrained him in some ways but not in others? Tudor England was a particular time and place not just a version of today in fancy dress. Whilst it is hugely tempting to choose a dramatic story to catch the childrens' interest they must 'know their society' before it can have any value as truth, otherwise the result will be one of Voltaire's fables.

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Summary: the importance of the historic environment

Children who are taught about events without 'knowing their society' generally conclude that the people of the past were 'mad', 'sad' or 'bad'. We need to show that the actions of the people in the past make perfect sense when seen from their point of view. If you want to know how people of another time thought one of the best ways to do this is to stand where they stood, to hear what they heard and to touch what they touched.

However, the historic environment is not simply a question of physical sites or buildings. There is also a landscape of ideas, hidden meanings in the language we use which tell of older ways of life and ways of doing things that were once commonplace - 'being on tenterhooks' for example (reference to the practice of hanging up newly-dyed cloth by its corners). And there is the historic environment which is being re-created for us in theme-parks, in films and on television, and through 'virtual reality' software. Each of these aspects is dealt with in the sections which follow.

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