Thursday, October 29, 2009

Teaching Amnesia To British Youth

"Our face is our autobiography", historian Will Durant remarked in one of his 1,000-page volumes on the Story of Civilization. This observation compliments one made by another Will -- William Shakespeare, in As You Like It:
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts..."

As we make our own individual entrances we are arriving at a mid-way point in an ongoing story. The players we see looking out at us when we face ourselves in the mirror can delude themselves into believing that the play began with the rise of their own individual curtain, but a more humble, and honest, recounting would reveal that the clock started ticking long before our arrival into the scene.

What story are we joining? What role is missing in the play, that we can fulfill? What are the hopes, and regrets, of those already having passed through the drama before us, from which we may take our cues?

Looking into their own mirrors, I wonder what the youth of Great Britain are seeing written into their autobiographies, now that they are no longer being taught about the story they are joining:

History Vanishes From One In 20 Schools
[Michael Gove, the Conservative shadow schools secretary] said: “History is effectively disappearing from some secondary schools. Giving children a proper knowledge of our island story so they can take pride in our historic achievements is the best way to build a modern, inclusive future for our country.
“But after a decade of decline under Labour less than a third of children now take the subject, and yet again we see that it is poorest pupils that are disproportionately missing out.”

Given how history's being taught when it is being taught, maybe it's disappearance is becoming the lesser of evils..?

[T]here is no doubt that something has gone badly wrong when seven out of 10 schoolchildren are no longer studying history at the age of 16, when two out of 10 think Britain was once occupied by the Spanish, and when some identify Sir Winston Churchill as the first man on the moon. And the blame lies at the very top, shared by politicians of both parties, who have been systematically cheating and betraying our children since the 1980s.

During the Thatcher years, it was meddling from the top that downgraded history from a compulsory to an optional subject at the age of 16 – which, because it was seen as "difficult", made it easy pickings for Mickey Mouse subjects such as Beauty Therapy. It was supposedly "progressive" interference, meanwhile, that did away with old-fashioned essay questions and replaced them with empathy exercises and multiple-choice quizzes that sacrificed any sense of intellectual depth or discipline.

And perhaps above all, it was in Westminster and Whitehall that officials designed our absurd Yo! Sushi approach to history, in which schools randomly pick unrelated historical topics like saucers from a conveyor belt, instead of studying our national story as a continuous narrative, which is how any sensible person sees it.
One student survived his youthful education with his curiosity intact, and pursued history as a more serious subject in university, but now admits he seems to spend more time defending his favorite topic than studying it:

Whenever I tell someone outside university that I'm taking history, they look puzzled, suppress a giggle, and ask "Why?"
People assume I'm deranged (or just a bit simple) when I mumble my reason for studying history: I enjoy it. I like reading and writing about history.
Basically, I'm doing a hobby degree. "But what will you do with a history degree when you graduate?" is often the next question.
Here's how you answer them: we study history as a precursor to greater understanding of other subjects, not just for its own sake; it helps us recognize the existence of cause-and-effect relationships, the fallibility of Man, the possibility of unintended consequences, and most especially, it teaches us how to learn, so long as history is approached as the study of stories... as learning from experience.

Sadly, in the UK such wisdom is fast becoming history.

How could you see a future, when you don't see a past?


Dag said...

We all were sea-swallow'd, though some cast again
(And by that destiny) to perform an act
Whereof what's past is prologue; what to come,
In yours and my discharge.

The Tempest Act 2, scene 1, 251–254

truepeers said...

"History" has at least two basic meanings: what happened, and the story of what happened. The key to human self-understanding, as you suggest Mr. Charles, is a better understanding of the relationship between the two (or more generally the relationships of event, sign, narrative, plot, story, universal - or originary - morality and historically-shifting ethics, etc.) And I remain dubious we can ever hope this to be taught well in high schools. Bad history teaching, not least in the old days when kids were asked to memorize the dates of the canonical heroes, is what has turned a lot of people off of history. But by the same token, when we take on a broad understanding of "history" we appreciate that it cannot be true that history is not taught in the schools, now or ever. Some aspects of the relationships among event, sign, narrative, etc. are being taught, for better or worse. This, in turn, should lead us to be a little less keen to denounce the young for their ignorance of what we hold dear and a little more keen to explore exactly what it is they know. If you want to engage anyone in unfolding a shared reality you have to start, at least partly, where they are.

And there is an error that those who love history often make, the idea that if only we would all sign on to a proper understanding of history we can properly control our shared future or, maybe, stay more firmly rooted in the past. But the desire for control, while it takes different forms on the left and right is in either case Satanic.

To be a conservative is, i think, only to know that social order depends on preservation of institutions but also that these institutions must evolve in face of the never-ending claims of freedom and equality. We must learn what has already been done and tried, so that we can better build on the past and be better prepared for the inevitable fact that history's tides wait for no one as the old order is always breaking down, given that resentment and conflict of desires is inevitable, and order's ongoing mediation will require new discoveries in human self-understanding, new ethical possibilities that are both something new and something old. In any case, history appeals most to people when they realize they need a better self-understanding to mediate the inevitable crisis. Carefree, "invincible" youth are hence hard to teach even as they are inevitably recapitulating old understandings and stories in their high-tech-mediated lives.

Dag said...

Some people might find this statement in need of elaboration:

"But the desire for control, while it takes different forms on the left and right is in either case Satanic."

truepeers said...

Satan is the accuser. And the desire for control, if given way, inevitably leads to a need for accusation of all those the controller feels confound his desires. And his desire for control must be confounded given the nature of humanity. Human desire, given its mimetic nature, inevitably leads to conflict. And those who would attempt to control this conflict through fear need to have a long retinue of scapegoats that they can accuse and sacrifice. That's Satanic.

We can and should strive for order but order only really exists when conflict is freely admitted and the people can freely mediate it; and that can't be done if some pre-ordained control of outcomes is demanded.

Anonymous said...

where was the rainbow photo taken?

Charles Henry said...


It was in Vancouver, BC.

Dag said...

Good thing you stepped in to answer that one, Charles. I thought the writer meant take to, whereas you read it as where from.

I'm still confused. Where was it take to? Will they ever bring it back? I like it.

zazie said...

to the three of you : You stop teaching history, or worse (?), you manipulate history for about thirty years ; what do you get ? A whole generation of brainwashed or brainless people who agree to the disapperance of the commemoration of Victory Day, and its remplacement by "le jour de la réconciliation franco-allemande"...
I am sad and ashamed!

Charles Henry said...

Zazie! Very nice to hear from you again, hope you are having a pleasant autumn so far.

I had to go look up "Victory Day", we don't use that title over here.

I see it's about the end of the European chapter of WWII; we call it "V-E Day", short for "Victory in Europe Day" (separate from "V-J Day"). It's not even a day that's commemorated here at all, although the US have their Memorial Day soon after, in May.

And of course we in Canada have our Remembrance Day coming up next week, on Nov 11.

We don't tend to associate these days any more with the specific event that triggered their origin: Memorial Day used to be about the US Civil War, and Remembrance Day comes from the end of WWI... but the theme of what was being commemorated has grown in scope, to encompass similar experiences that occured since, as history repeats itself.

The growth itself is part of the story of these Days now, expanding because of our awareness that we, today, are part of the story. There are veterans of the Afghan war that will parade next week, alongside the WWII veterans, and everyone in-between.

If Victory Day is becoming more like a "Rapprochement Day" in France, it sounds as if the evolution is twisting the Day in a different direction, by ignoring the story the Day was acknowledging in the first place.

They're not, after all, reconciling with nazis... but that is sure what it makes the day sound like, doesn't it, by ignoring the reality that there was a war against evil that was won that day.

zazie said...

Sorry, my mistke! I was thinking of Remembrance Day, which our so-called French president has "dropped", explainin that now the last "poilu" is dead....On the stage of the world, he is turning France into something "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything" ; he is sending us into "mere oblivion"!
Personally, I disapprove of suicide!

Dag said...

Hi Zazie! Good to see you again.