Understanding history

Recently I agreed to an interview with a young man who is about to take his final school examinations (the Irish Leaving Certificate). He was working on a history project, and his teacher felt I might be able to add some colour to his research: his topic was Germany in the 20th century. We had an interesting discussion about imperialism, the cultural developments in the Weimar Republic, Nazism and the greadual rehabilitation of (first) West Germany and later the re-united country. I hope it was of some use to him.

However, the conversation did cause me to wonder a little about how young people are taught history. The young man in question knew quite a lot about the various movements and events during the period he was researching, but was not at all in command of some basic facts. He could not tell me (or even guess) the dates of either world war, he did not know when the Nazis were able to take over the government, he did not know the name of the first post-War West German Chancellor (although he assured me the name was on the tip of his tongue). He was fully in command of other matters: he was able to outline the significance of Berlin as an eclectic cultural centre in the Weimar period, his (correct) understanding of the development of concentration camps under the Nazis, the significance of the Berlin air lift by the United States and others, and the value (or otherwise) of German currencies in the 1920s and late 1940s. In short, he was extremely articulate when discussion social, political and economic trends, but was on the whole unable to place these in the context of dates and names.

To see whether this was specific to German history, I quizzed him very briefly on a few key dates and facts of Irish and European history, and came up with the same result.

Of course I would need to add a health warning or two here. First, he had come to me for a conversation on a particular set of topics, and there was no reason for him to expect the encounter to be under exam conditions and that he would be quizzed on various facts. Secondly, his particular knowledge may not be typical of secondary students generally. But more particularly, I myself may have been going at this the wrong way. When I learnt history at school at least earlier on I was on the whole learning dates, events and names. I can still (weirdly) recite from memory the dates of all the English kings and queens from 1066 (which is odd not least because I disapprove of monarchy), and the dates of pretty much all major battles in these islands and central Europe. That kind of approach was some time ago dismissed as being unhelpful to a proper understanding of the significance of history. Increasingly students were also discouraged from seeing history as just the story of rulers and great men and women, and were persuaded to spend more time looking at social trends, cultural insights, and the lives and times of ‘ordinary’ people. In addition, there has been an increasing desire to move away from history as being just about Europe and America and to embrace a much more international approach that includes a variety of countries and cultures.

I suppose that what I am wondering is whether we need to focus a little bit on both aspects. I absolutely accept that history is more than just names of white rulers and generals and the dates they encountered, and is more than just a description of the big political and military moments of each era and place. On the other hand, I am not at all persuaded that someone will have a useful historical insight if they lack the knowledge of basic facts, and struggle to remember which century the First World War was in (my visitor, when gently pressed by me, eventually went for the 19th century).

However, as I considered all this I also acknowledged to myself that, as someone interested in history, I was woefully unaware of the finer details of the debates around how to teach it: a gap I shall try to fill in the coming year.

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One Comment on “Understanding history”

  1. Ultan Says:

    I came across a similar situation myself recently when a student of a massively expensive fee-paying school in the UK asked me who won the Korean war “between the Americans and the Chinese” and did I think General Patton did a good job…

    However, I don’t think this is solely a matter of how history is taught in a formal setting, although it has a role for sure, and I don’t think its the kids fault either (though I am not saying you said that), but a wider societal ignorance and even contempt for anything other than the moment or the “me” issue. Most of my knowledge of history comes not from school, but from interest and my own extra-curricular reading following up on stories passed on by my family through conversation, events I might have seen on TV, and so on. For example, if you wanted to explore what was going on in the north of Ireland since the 1960s, history books when I was in school didn’t help you, and neither did the Irish media (thanks to the state censorship of Section 31 thanks from Cruise-O’Brien). You really had to work at exploring history, but it was worth it, it was around you everywhere. There seems to be very little cultural or sense of historical context to life today for a lot of Irish people. How ironic.

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