Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

1. The difficulty with History

‘The past is another country: they do things differently there’ (L P Hartley) is a popular reminder of the first big problem faced by the history teacher. Most children think that people in history were bad, mad or simply sad. Adults might express themselves more subtly but the sense of distance is equally great. We are cut off from our ancestors by cheap air travel, the mobile ‘phone, pain-free dentistry and central heating. Few of us can imagine living with the levels of discomfort that were habitual in the past; nor would we find it easy to accept a life expectancy of thirty – the average before medicine ceased to be a branch of alchemy. Most of these differences, it could be argued, are superficial: a deeper cleft exists in the world of ideas. Men and women in the past just didn’t see the world in the way we do. For them the earth and its inhabitants were the centre of the universe, not a minute speck in an almost infinite cosmos. Humans had a soul whose survival in the next world depended upon decisions made in this one. There was an in-built morality in creation: all that was necessary was to conform to its standards, however they had been revealed. Millions of people still believe this of course but even they have to admit that there are alternative possibilities. Fortified by modern science, our doubts separate us from almost every other culture that has previously existed, except perhaps the Ancient Greeks.

A second big problem arises from the nature of ‘history’ itself. History is not the same as what happened in the past: it is the sum of our knowledge of what happened in the past and it is far from complete, even in relation to more recent periods. The problem can be illustrated in the following way: ask your group to write down on a piece of paper some event or achievement that would make them famous. Then collect in the folded over slips (the exercise has to be done anonymously if it’s to be done honestly). What results will be a mixture of fantasy and aspiration with a strong element of the absurd (‘sky dive with a gorilla’ seems interesting; ‘marry Prince William’ even more so if you suspect that the author is a man). Having read them out you throw them all in the waste paper basket, except one, hopefully the most bizarre. This, you say, will be the one that is preserved by some accident of history and will thus be the future’s only guide to the state of mind of learners in the early 21st century! What we call history is a story we have made up from the surviving facts and the discovery of new facts can transform our impressions entirely. A good example is that of the Mayas of Central America who were thought to be a peaceful, even benevolent, race until archaeologists learned how to read their script and learned of constant warfare, conquest and the beheading of captured kings. Another, example closer to home, is that of Lindow Man, an Iron Age warrior found in a peat bog in Cheshire who is generally thought to have been a sacrifice made at the time of the Roman invasion of these islands. But is this the only interpretation of the evidence? Might he have been the victim of a prehistoric mugging or an unwise decision to take a shortcut across the bog after a particularly heavy night out? Were the injuries to his head and throat necessarily inflicted during life? What further evidence do we need in order to decide?

Fortunately most learners find such uncertainties a challenge and it is one reason why ancient history has such an appeal. Another is the ability of the remote past to act as a kind of ‘never, never land’ in which politically incorrect things can happen without the inevitable protests. This confronts the teacher of history with another problem, that of ‘alternative’ or fantasy history. The characters have the same names as real people and they sometimes dress in the same way but they do and say things that are impossible even though it makes a good story. It can be argued that fantasy history has a very respectable pedigree – from Homer’s Iliad onwards – and that no-one judges a Shakespeare play by its adherence to the facts. It is my belief however that Shakespeare intended to stick to the facts as far as he knew them because there were lessons to be drawn from them. He used the best sources available to him and he did not write characters out of the plot simply because they were inconvenient. He did of course add things but they were consistent with the truth as he saw it; he could also plead a greater continuity between the outlook of his own time and that of a hundred or two hundred years previously. My quarrel with the current writers of fantasy history is that they want ‘their bun and their ha’penny as well’. They are exploiting the authority of history (‘this actually happened’) whilst ignoring the fact that this authority rests on truth, at least as far as we know it. However, let it be said that many a teacher of history has found fictionalised history to be a good starting point for an examination of the evidence and there’s no doubt that learners of all ages enjoy having the difference between fact and fiction pointed out to them.

What I’ve written in the preceding paragraph might seem to contradict what I said in the previous one, namely the impossibility of certainty in history. As far as we know Hitler never visited Britain but who knows, a postcard from Bournemouth may one day turn up in the ruins of the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin, saying ‘wish you were here – Adolf’. It is of course extremely unlikely that such a postcard will be found and one can argue whether it would make any difference if it were but some changes to the historical record would have much greater consequences. When the producers of The Tudors, a recent re-telling of the story of Anne Boleyn for American audiences, decided to ignore the existence of Henry VIII’s elder sister they also eliminated the current British royal family who are descended from her. That is one kind of error: another is to ignore what I call the ‘congruency’ of history – the way in which all aspects of a period contribute to making it what it is, including fashion, music, art and literature. The designers of the same series have omitted Henry VIII’s iconic codpiece, dressing the actors instead in costumes reminiscent of the age of Shakespeare. This is akin to putting Noel Coward in jeans or the Beatles in ‘plus-fours’!

Part of our job as teachers of history therefore lies in demonstrating the limits of possibility. An elephant may not have wings and still be an elephant; Henry VIII may not be short and dark haired and still be Henry VIII. Make no mistake I am not one of those historians for whom imagination is a dirty word. Without imagination we could not visualise the past at all! However, I am setting limits to it, limits which do not include gratuitous alterations to suit modern taste. On the contrary I believe in immersing learners as far as possible in the realities of the period they are studying so that, if possible, they can see that period from within.

Just how important this is can be demonstrated by the following, not too serious exercise. Ask your group to imagine that they have been kidnapped by a Martian who wants an explanation for certain aspects of human life, in particular what goes on in four types of building – a school, a church, a pub and a football ground. Impress on your learners that the Martian has a very literal mind and no background knowledge of human affairs. Within these constraints it is actually extremely hard to make sense of the buildings in question. As one student put it to me ‘they all appear to be places where sad people go to sing’. The point is that unless you’re part of the culture many of its aspects are hidden from you. Thus the game of football can appear to be some sort of preparation for mating whilst schools can look like prisons for children...

Much of the perceived badness, sadness or madness referred to at the start of this section arises from the same kind of misunderstanding as that shown by our alien. The Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, not to mention the Aztecs or the Incas, appear to us in the same light as we would do to a creature from another world. Except that we are human and if we begin to think about it we can see that all the peculiarities of these cultures arise from trying to solve the same kinds of dilemmas that we face but under different circumstances and with different information. Re-create the circumstances and the information and much of what they do makes perfect sense.

Learners of all ages are fascinated by the fact that, for Roman men at least, going to the lavatory was a social occasion. The reason for this fascination its obvious. Going to the lavatory is something all humans do so it proves that we have something in common with Romans. On the other hand the fact that they did it differently helps us to define culture in general and Roman-ness in particular. By approaching what separates us from the past by what unites us we can safely embark on a journey, however young we are, that will take us deeper and deeper into the Roman psyche. Some aspects of it will always seem alien, for example the Roman enthusiasm for ‘blood sports’. Today, having men fight to the death for the amusement of others would be seen as a fundamental denial of their human rights but the popularity of films like Gladiator suggests that a modern audience can enjoy it just as much as long as those dying are actors! On the plus side there is love and sex in all its forms, and there are the countless ways in which different societies have sought to remedy life’s ills - of which our current welfare state is perhaps the most outstanding example.

We have a great advantage over our hypothetical Martian therefore when trying to get inside the heads of people in the past. What we sometimes lack (or fail to provide for our learners) is the necessary detail. A great deal of what follows will therefore be about resources but let it be said at the outset that strangeness itself is no barrier to understanding: more often it is the failure to select appropriately and to explain adequately. The teacher has to possess the ability to do both, otherwise it really is a case of the blind leading the blind. How many lessons in school have I seen go wrong because the children have spotted gaps in the teacher’s subject knowledge. They realise that the story they are being told just doesn’t add up, even on the basis of the facts they’ve been given. A little questioning soon reveals that the teacher is simply relaying second-hand information and hasn’t thought about it at all so that he or she is forced to rely on their authority to close down the discussion.

Don’t think you have to become an absolute expert on every period of history! There are short cuts, made possible by the ever increasing availability of original sources on the internet and there are some historians whose approach to their subject is of particular value to the teacher, mainly those who challenge received opinions and offer fresh interpretations based upon the most up-to-date evidence. I have included those whose work I’ve found most useful in the bibliography but it’s a growing and changing list to which you’ll add your own particular favourites. For the moment let’s return to the classroom and to the skills which underlie the work of the professional historian and which provide a basis for teaching the subject as well.