Today was GCSE results day (there we go – another significant event to mark!). For the first, and last, time as a teacher, my students got their results. Many of them did very well, and those who were successful thoroughly deserved it. The GCSE course was a long and hard fought slog. Well done to all of them.
It made me think about history as a subject, and how complex it is. People generally fit into two categories when it comes to history – they either love it, or loathe it. Either way people often mistakenly think history is just about memorising a series of facts. Actually it is far more sophisticated – there are sources to analyse, you have to be wary of bias from authors (both historians and people who were writing at the time), you evaluate interpretations, and all of this can only be done effectively by firstly understanding the events, and then secondly by putting yourself in the mindset of the people of the time. That’s hard enough for experts to achieve – imagine trying to do it as a hormonal teenager!
As a teacher, the cornerstone of my work was always about making the subject fun. If you cannot inspire interest in a subject as complex as this, then you end up fighting a losing battle. The moment a student decides: ‘I hate history – it’s boring’, they instantly lose the will to try and master the intellectual skills that it entails.
It was a challenge that I faced early on in my training as a teacher with a class that I took in in one of my training school, so I devised a class contest: me vs my reluctant and uninspired Year 9s. The topic? History: Why bother? Below is my opening statement. I hope that it is able to provide you with a little inspiration, should you ever need it.
‘History. “It’s all about dead people”. “People back then were less clever than we are, so why should I care what they did. It was probably something stupid”. “The past has already happened, so learning about it is pointless, because it won’t tell us anything about the future”. Right?
‘History isn’t just a subject. It is a story. It is the greatest story ever told, for one very simple reason. It is a true story, and not only that, but the story of something incredibly important: it is our story. The story of who we are, and where we have come from.
‘It is a story that spans ten thousand years. A story that cross six continents. A story rich in detail, full of success and failure, full of hope and heartbreak. It is deeply personal, because we are studying our ancestors – those who forged the world in which we live, in the furnace of their toil, tears and blood. To brand the study of the past, and their role within it, as pointless does them a disservice.
‘Surely we would not suggest that the fierce struggles for equality of Emmeline Pankhurst and Martin Luther King should be forgotten? That the millions who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our liberty in conflicts across the globe should be dismissed as irrelevant? That remembering the appalling suffering of unknown millions during the Nazi Holocaust is unimportant? No-one, surely, would be so crass, so disrespectful, and so foolish.
‘Employers crave those who can think analytically, who can construct and defend an argument using precise facts and figures, who can actively participate in a discussion. History requires you to question, to probe rather than blindly accept, to justify rather than simply state. No other subject hones these skills to such a sharp point.
‘History allows us to see humanity at its best, and its worst. Tales of heroism and cowardice, love and betrayal, life and death. History has more of these than any Hollywood Blockbuster. History is important above all because it enables us to understand who we are. For if, by ignoring the past, we do not know about the road which we have travelled to the present, how can we prepare for our journey into the future?’