Monday, 12 January 2009

History lessons

Paint by numbers from Flickr/JenniferJune
Over the last year or so I've been publishing quite a few posts which started off being about my travels, trip reports I suppose you could call them.  I've noticed though, that they have veered off towards historical places recently.  You could say my whole blog has veered off from its original intent, several times and in several directions, but that's another story and besides, that's evolution for you.  The revelation, though, is that I am interested in history, more so than I thought. 

Up to the age of about 11, all I seemed to learn about were the stone age, the bronze age, Greeks, Babylonians and Romans, all of which which seemed so remote at the time that my imagination was never engaged.  Besides, I stopped having anything further to do with it after the teacher asked us to guess the period of something .  "Come on, just guess. I won't be annoyed if you get it wrong."  Some poor girl guessed 2000 BC and, yes, the teacher shouted at her.

Then senior school, and all we seemed to do was learn things parrot fashion, all in chronological order of kings and queens of England.  There was a quick side trip into the French Revolution but only insofar as it touched England. And we literally did have to learn things off by heart.  When important exams came at the age of 16, we were given a list of 20 of the most likely topics and were expected to know our set notes so well that we could just write, write, write, for three hours solid, without having to engage our brains at all.

I believe the teaching history in schools has improved over the intervening years, and I sincerely hope this is true.  A friend's child studied the history of medicine for her exams, which sounds to me vastly more appealing.  Painting-by-numbers doesn't produce works of art and history-by-monarch doesn't, to my mind, produce good history.  Do, or did, Americans have to learn history-by-President?  Do other countries do this trundling through the years via their heads of state and call it history?

So here I am, an indeterminate number of years later, finding I enjoy history, that there is so much more involved than dates.  And I'm frantically trying to catch up on all I've missed.  I have just read Paris in the Fifties (not solely about Paris and only incidentally the fifties) and I'm about to embark on a history of South Africa in French.  That should be interesting in more ways than one.


  1. Brilliant!
    The most important subject is history!
    Learn to read, count and History and geography, then add the other things.
    Without history people do not know where they come from, nor do they understand the ideas that shape their generation.
    It's also interesting!
    The main problem with history is the way it is taught. English history lies about Scotland for instance (while we tell the truth about you) and I am unsure as to whether Scots history is taught properly these days.

  2. Adullamite, thank you. :) History is our grounding, how we arrived at where we are. Just one small thing, I'm not English and only British by a whisker, so that made me question the Anglo-centric (if that's a word) history I was taught.

  3. In my blogging, the British have told me many times that Americans don't have enough history to bother studying, so, no, we didn't study history when I was in school. Heh.

    No, I don't remember studying history by the presidents. As I remember it was simply in chronological order and the presidents were just part of each chapter/section of history, wherever they fit in.

    Our history was divided into more than one course. For example American History was a different subject than U.S. History. That meant that one usually took American History first, which covered the period from, say, the Vikings up until the American Revolution, and wasn't restricted to the area of land that later became the USA. Thereafter, U.S. History took over. Canada was pretty much covered at the same time: what they were doing up there when we were doing thus and so down here. Study of the British continued in U.S. History, but mainly only as to how we interacted with one another, and not what the UK was doing the rest of the time. That was handled in a course called World History. Again, taught more or less in chronological order rather than by event.

    Happily, I went through those courses during a period where it was considered "modern" not to learn by rote or to memorize too many dates. Instead, we were encouraged to learn "time frames" of history. Only really, really important dates had to be remembered. I didn't have to learn the presidents by heart, but it was expected, if one wanted to get a high grade, to be able to mention who was president during this or that war or whatever. But we did write and write and write. My teachers for the most part did not hold much stock in "multiple-guess" types of tests. They must have stayed up all night reading and evaluating our gibberish. Today, tests are probably graded by machine, since there is not much writing.

    But somehow, stumbling from class to class throughout our years of schooling, American children still somehow managed to learn a bit about the Crimean War, the Spanish Armada and William the Conqueror, as well as who Abraham Lincold was.

    Some of it actually stuck to the inside of my brain.

  4. Max, it does sound as though your teaching was at least a little more enlightened than mine was. I went to a very traditional school, where anything that had been all right for the previous generation was considered be all right for us too. Or so it seemed. I don't remember any of the meaning of history being discussed, just a race through the curriculum and a regurgitation for exams. Pity.

  5. My kids are bi-cultural and their French class teacher was horrified that they'd be skipping history to do English lessons - I was overjoyed as the French are just as Francocentric as the English anglocentric, if not worse and the lesson consisted of learning by rote - en l'année 52 avant Jésu, Vercingétorix montat la colline d'Alésia. History is generally a subject you're only interested in as an adult, or older child, unless you're lucky enough to have an outstanding teacher. Our guys always have fun getting two contrasting history curriculae re Napoleonic wars - but that in itself is a good lesson. The boy child will be writing his Bac history paper in May 2015 - irony will not be lost ;-)
    PS Sorry I've been away awhile - ISP down & too busy to fix it.

  6. Hello j, welcome back! I was hoping you'd be by to tell us the current French system. It doesn't sound as though it has changed much. Rote learning is a killer. When my younger was taking his GCSE there seemed to be more analysis going on which made it sound more interesting to me, but possibly he did have a particularly good teacher.

    On a slightly different topic, at the time we were in Paris, both sons used to say that French teaching of science and maths was centred round different theorems, all French, so examples and proofs were quite different. I can't think of one example at the moment, but this was brought to mind just this morning when I read that it is the 200th anniversary of Gay-Lussac's Law of Combining Volumes. At least one thing in common!

  7. I am incapable of helping my kids with their maths homework - despite an A at O-level (JMB 198*) as it is done very differently. From a few years back the French introduction to division was to say divide 1473 into 4 groups, how many are left over - the kids were supposed to guess a number, multiply it by 4 until they got close to the answer. We promptly taught them long division and were lucky enough to have an understanding teacher who accepted that the somewhat dubious method worked and accepted my kids doing their sums both ways - a lot of other teachers have castigated parents for confusing their offspring - one has to be qualified to be a teacher, quand-même!

  8. Teachers did not teach with passion when I was going to school. History was dry as dust and learning was all about wars, who was president what year and was never personalized. Now that I am older, reading about the PERSON and not the dates and the strategies of war mongers is what brings it alive for me.

  9. I loved History as a kid but I too wasn't convinced with the style it was taught in and I never hardly learned anything about Asian culture except when I did Economic History at a level and we did about the Industrial revolution and the British Raj and Empire lol. Great post!

  10. You are pointing on something important here.

    By "some" reasons history has changed since I went to school in the 1950'ies, just post WW2.

    In fact, it's a very different view presented in school to day.
    And not to mention what we were told by the Missionaires. When thinking about that, I feel sick.
    And whar we were taught about animals: Only instincts. Haha.

    By the way:
    Have you taken my Friday Fun Challenge?


Forethoughts, afterthoughts, any thoughts. Tell me.


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