Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Trapped in the Present
The decline of history teaching in our schools

There was a fascinating article by Simon Schama in the Guardian about the teaching--or lack thereof--of history in English schools. 

My own anecdotal evidence suggests that right across the secondary school system our children are being short-changed of the patrimony of their story, which is to say the lineaments of the whole story, for there can be no true history that refuses to span the arc, no coherence without chronology. A pedagogy that denies that completeness to children fatally misunderstands the psychology of their receptiveness, patronises their capacity for wanting the epic of long time; the hunger for plenitude. Everything we know about their reading habits – from Harry Potter to The Amber Spyglass and Lord of the Rings suggests exactly the opposite. But they are fiction, you howl? Well, make history – so often more astounding than fiction – just as gripping; reinvent the art and science of storytelling in the classroom and you will hook your students just as tightly.
 I enjoyed history at school in the early 1980s, to the extent of nearly reading it at university, but even then I came away with the sense that I didn't understand the chronology.  I left school having studied history to A level, very well informed about 19th century British and European history and not a whole lot else - a smattering of the Romans and Tudors, perhaps.  It wasn't until I left university that I decided to read myself into history, starting with the ancient Greeks and finishing with the Napoleonic wars.  Twenty years later that project is still not complete to my satisfaction (the more I learn, the more avenues for further exploration open up), but I do have a sense of the continuity of the historical record--even if not gathered at school.

These days, I understand, things are even worse.  Most children study the Tudors and the Nazis, and very little else.  One need not be a knee-jerk little Englander to find this profoundly depressing--future generations growing up with no concept of our past, which gives context to their tomorrows.

It also has interesting implications for genre writers.  Authors of historical fiction in the past might have been able to assume some background knowledge in their readers (Shakespeare probably didn't have to tell his audience who Henry V was), but today that's no longer true.  Everything has to be built from the ground up.  Yet the role of the historical novelist is more important than ever, for if schools are no longer allowed to teach history, writers become the teachers as well as the entertainers.  But children leave school without realising just how thrilling history can be, is there even a long-term market for historical fiction?

Even for fantasy writers, the subject is relevant.  My Mondia novels, in particular The Dog of the North, draw heavily on Renaissance Italy.  Yet for the reader unschooled in history, that connection is never made.  As readers become less and less acquainted with our past, there becomes increasingly little distinction between historically-flavoured fantasy and the freer-wheeling interpretations like Jack Vance's Cugel books.  Does it matter?  After all, any fantasy novel must stand on its own merits, not its inspirations?  Maybe not, but as writers we need to understand our audience--and it's an audience that, year by year, becomes less well versed in its own history, or as Schama puts it:

The generations who will either pass on the memory of our disputatious liberty or be not much bovvered about the doings of obscure ancestors, and go back to Facebook for an hour or four. Unless they can be won to history, their imagination will be held hostage in the cage of eternal Now: the flickering instant that's gone as soon as it has arrived. They will thus remain, as Cicero warned, permanent children, for ever innocent of whence they have come and correspondingly unconcerned or, worse, fatalistic about where they might end up.


C. N. Nevets said...

There is a similar trend in the states, and I think a lot of what I see is because of a dual emphasis on (1) the "scientific" and (2) the "practical."

Kids are told time and time again that science is the future and that technology is the field with promise. Our teachers and schools are constantly given incentives to improve their performance specifically in science and math, to "make our youth more competitive globally."

History is among the disciplines which seems insignificant in that climate.

Too, with the increasing instant-delivery culture, kids have become increasingly focused on what they need to know pragmatically. What will get me through this moment and into the next, and what tools will I have to learn the context if the moment demands it. If it doesn't put food on my plate, money in my bank, or a girl in my bed, I don't care about it -- and I can research it in 5 minutes on the internet if for some reason I do state to care.

All that to day, I think there's a huge impact of this mindset on writers of all fiction. With the loss of history, we not only lose context but we lose curiosity and wonder. We lose the ability to understand things of which we have no direct experience, and we lose the drive to do in the first place.

And I think that changes the experience of fiction dramatically.

Tim Stretton said...

"and I can research it in 5 minutes on the internet if for some reason I do state to care"

That's an important point, Nevets. I don't think it's what started the decline of taught history, but it certainly helps prevent its rebirth.

As a position, it makes the fundamental error of confusing "facts" with "knowledge". Wikipedia is a tremendously useful fact-checker but it does make it possible to harvest information free of context - where it can be valueless or even harmful.

Your points on the US are interesting. I think the best history resource I ever stumbled across was the Ellis Island museum--at once evocative, educational and humbling. If our education systems could make all history so compelling there'd be nothing to worry about.

Frances Garrood said...

I think you're absolutely right, Tim. I left school lamentably ignorant of subjects historical, and I still am (although I am trying to rectify that). I regret it very much.

I think the trouble is twofold. One, of course, is the curriculum, and the tendecy to specialise in certain periods rather than get a feel for the spectrum as a joined-up whole. The second is teaching. A good teacher in any subject can inspire a life-long interest in that subject. When I was taught history (admittedly some time ago. but I feel things haven't changed much), it was dull dull dull. And I switched off. Apart from the wives of Henry V111 (not useful, but universally known), I don't think I learnt anything at all, and I am geuninely ashamed of my lack of knowledge.

I believe that all children should have a solid grounding in where we come from as a country and a people; our government, our wars, our constitution, our modi vivendi, the lot. That, at least, would be a start.

(Lovely verification word: 'troved'. That has to be historical...?)

dolorah said...

In the states too, history isn't being well taught. It focuses on the tragedy of slavery, the civil war, and the decimation of the Native Americans. Seems all the schools want to teach is the worst moments - stuff our country has evolved away from.

I think Nevets has the right of it; kids don't really want to know about history. We focus them on the future, on forward movement.

It is hard to get them to read a historical or fantasy novel b/c its about things they can't connect to NOW. I wonder if even SciFi holds their attention for long.


Tim Stretton said...

Frances, having the right teacher definitely helped. My history teachers were generally interesting and enthusiastic, so I left school at least thinking I wanted to know more than I did.

Today, though, history teaching is such a minor part of the national curriculum, and the syllabus so regulated, that even the best teachers are swimming against the tide. And this is a one-way street, because once that core of knowledge becomes the preserve of the autodidact and the academician, who will be left to teach it?

Donna, it was only when I went to the Ellis Island Museum that I realised how rich and diverse America's history was (the tendency among Brits is to think of the US as a johnny-come-lately effort that only began once you inexplicably threw off George III's benign rule...). A shame that your teaching dwells on the misery.

As to attention spans, children today are creatures of the internet - the sustained imaginative effort to inhabit a book is simply not being fostered. Writers like JK Rowling are heroically fighting a rearguard action; but while more of us than ever are writing novels, I suspect fewer than ever are reading them.

Alis said...

I agree with Frances, I don't think that the parlous state of history teaching is a recent thing. I have always been fascinated by history but didn't study it at school beyond 16 because the syllabus was all nineteenth century and political. My history itch was really scratched at university because the English course took us through Eng Lit from Anglo Saxon poetry to TS Eliot. Since none of the '-isms' of critical theory held particular sway amongst my group of tutors, we were allowed and encouraged to see works of literature entirely in their historical context which taught me a lot about the context.

I suspect a lot of my fascination with the medieval period came from a specific finals paper - the History of the English Language - which made it quite clear that it was in that period that English became English and we began to see the emergence of the culture and people we have today.

Tim Stretton said...

Alis, my history A level was all 19th century political, but European as well as British, and it captured my interest. The names alone--Metternich, Talleyrand, Garibaldi--delighted me, and the idea of the restored Charles X having "learned nothing and forgotten nothing" has stayed with me ever since.