Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

Final Word

It was said at the outset that this is not a history book or even a book about history: it is a book about teaching and learning history. As we have gone along the terms ‘history’ and ‘past’ may have seemed interchangeable but of course they are not. The past is all that has happened to produce the present whilst history is much more limited in nature. From the very beginning historians have selected events that appear significant to them whilst much remains unknown and uncertain. Without becoming hopelessly lost in a sea of relativism no-one could pretend that what results is free of cultural or political bias, or from the kinds of mistake that are unavoidable when evidence is lacking. Indeed, it has been suggested all along that a lot of the fascination of history lies in disentangling fact from opinion, correcting distortions that have obscured the truth even if (in some people’s eyes) it means creating new distortions of one’s own. Here then is one lesson that history teaches: however straightforward the case it’s always possible that error has crept in: as in science new facts may emerge to upset even the most widely accepted of theories. This is not a reason for giving up. Just as there is only one present – the state of things as they actually are, imperfect as our knowledge of them may be – so there is only one past that can have produced that present. We may ‘see through a glass darkly’, but what we see is real.

You might say at this point, why argue from history at all, if so much is obscure? There are two answers to this. Firstly, as was pointed out in the introduction, things only exist because they have a history, however brief it may be, and in the case of human beings the possession of a history – both individual and communal – is what makes us human. In other words, if we don’t have good history we will have bad. Secondly, much more is known about the past than is sometimes recognised, to the extent that – even with societies remote in time – general characteristics can be discerned which allow us to say that some things are reasonably certain, even if exact details are blurred. Thus, after a lifetime of study of the 15th Century, the historian Bruce McFarlane could say that the key to understanding the past was to ‘know your society’ – an approach that has been taken throughout this book.

In the past I’ve compared McFarlane’s philosophy to that of a landscape artist who cannot render every leaf on every tree in its exact position because, when the wind blows or the sun shines, both position and appearance change. If he tries to, the result is lifeless and dull. Instead he puts leaves or branches where they could be, sometimes sketchily, as if to suggest motion, retaining the overall truthfulness of the scene. Similarly, whilst there may not be exactness in our recording of the past, there are limits outside of which the truth cannot lie.

To take an obvious example, young children very quickly realise that there are no mobile ‘phones, motor cars or machine guns in the standard Nativity story. They accept without argument that these things were not invented at the time when Baby Jesus was born. They also know that cameras weren’t around two thousand years ago so that any picture of the Nativity has to be an approximation – someones’s idea of what the scene looked like. As they grow older they naturally become more critical, drawn to what appears more real in the light of the evidence. It’s an important process and not one to be undermined by the beauty of some later representations. These may be treated as an aspect of the period when they were made but we must always be suspicious of history that is written backwards, as it were. Establishing the limits of probability in relation to any period, time or person, must be one the chief ambitions of teacher and learner alike.

And you can stop there. Taking your pupils on a trip to ‘Roman-land’ is relatively easy, especially now that we enjoy access to a wealth of audio-visual resources through books and the internet. All the key skills of the UK National Curriculum can be exercised through a topic that has as its goal a deep acquaintance with that it meant to be a Roman, an exploration of an alternative reality that enriches the imagination and encourages creativity in its own right – again an approach that has been taken throughout this book. However, most people would expect more of a study of the past than this. Surely history explains things? Surely it has lessons for the future? Their views are summarised in the oft-repeated question: ‘how do you know where you’re going unless you know where you have come from?’ which underlies all deterministic views of history such as Marxism.

As we have seen, Marx thought he could discern a pattern in human affairs which would allow him to predict the precise course of future events – in his case the triumph of the industrial working class. For his followers the search for knowledge then became a search for additional proof that the theory was correct. In states like Russia or China where Marxism had become a sort of religion, inconvenient facts were ignored and incorrect views punished. Marxism can thus be called a ‘closed system’ and that is largely the reason why it has foundered in the face of a much more shapeless liberalism, for if there is one law that can be derived from history it is this: even when the case for one course of action is overwhelmingly self-evident there will always be someone who argues against it, if only to demonstrate independence of mind. ‘Live fishes swim against the current’, it has been said: ‘dead ones are carried along by it.’ Sometimes events prove the outsider right; sometimes the majority simply becomes bored. Then yesterday’s eccentricity becomes today’s gospel. The long term effect is similar to driving a car. Keeping it in a straight line involves an endless series of small adjustments. Unfortunately, the nature of multi-party democracy means that elected politicians are always in a hurry. All too often the desire to get something done supersedes the need for balance on which real progress depends and wild swings result. Once again Shakespeare was ahead of the game when he has Hamlet say ‘the times are out of joint – O cursed spite that I was born to set them right.’

It sounds as if I am saying that history does, after all, have lessons to teach, not the answer to the question ‘where are we going?’ but ‘what will be the nature of the journey?’ To which I answer, yet again, ‘only partly…’ The previous paragraph drew attention to a factor which seems constant in human affairs: the way in which successful societies maintain a balance between change and stability. This constant in turn reflects an even more fundamental one: the interplay between intellect and emotion, between control and chaos which I have related to the structure of the brain itself – an older, instinctive-emotional core and the most recently developed frontal lobe system that both learns and directs. Whatever happens in human history is subject to these constraints, just as it is by our need for food, water, shelter and warmth. Yet here too Marxism failed, for whilst Marx saw these fundamental needs and the need to provide for them as determining the relationships between different classes, he never took account of factors outside human control such as climate change and natural disaster. These can have a profound influence on the course of events, for example, the prolonged winter caused by a massive volcanic eruption, or a drought caused by changes in wind patterns. Such events could and did bring civilisations down. Future generations may well see the economic progress of the last two hundred years as linked to a period of unusual climatic stability, at least in Britain and Western Europe, just as the cathedral-building age was characterised by an upturn in global temperatures and a consequent increase in harvests.

Who can say what humanity’s response to such changes may be in the future? At the moment we are struggling to deal with the threat posed by the burning of fossil fuels and the consequent increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the ‘greenhouse effect’. This may require sacrifices which politicians of all kinds will find it difficult to ask of their electorates until events prove it is almost too late. Everyone knew the Irish Famine of 1846-9 was a disaster waiting to happen but thousands had to die before the prevailing philosophy of ‘laissez-faire’ was found to be inadequate in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe that no country calling itself Christian could ignore. As a result attitudes changed just as they are changing now, with yesterday’s financial ‘whiz-kids’ becoming today’s greedy and irresponsible villains. Tomorrow’s heroes will require different qualities again. We are clearly at a stage where we are experimenting with just what these are.

And here may be a lesson we can rely upon. We began by saying that for human beings learning is as natural as breathing and that we only exist for ourselves and for others by what we learn and the story we make of it. There is however, a paradox built into the human situation, quite apart from the limitations imposed by its biological evolution. To have a sense of self requires a degree of consistency – of principle, whether tied to religious belief or not – yet learning is all about adapting to circumstances. All of us have to achieve a compromise between the need to change and the need to believe we are still the same person we thought we were. The same is true of communities and nations. It’s why the British constitution has worked so well. We have kept our monarchy but largely stripped it of its powers; we elect our governments but we do not tie their hands. Effective action can be taken without reference to the electorate but politicians who take ‘courageous’ decisions may pay the price at the polls. Some people do not think we are democratic enough; others that too much is made of public opinion, especially when it is unduly influenced by a sensation-hungry media. That oddity the ‘life peer’ represents a typical British compromise between the two positions, indefensible in terms of pure logic perhaps but perfectly workable in practice. Such convenient arrangements are almost always arrived at by evolution rather than revolution, another of Marx’s mistakes.

Beyond the consequences of ‘natural’ disaster the worst threats we face as a society seem to come from two directions. Firstly, there are those who see themselves as called upon by a higher power to put right what the democratic process has allowed to go wrong. Their actions may be brutal and bloody, evoking brutal and bloody actions in response. Quite apart from the suffering they cause they can drain us of the hope that things will ever get better – a version of the old doctrine of ‘original sin’. That this more important to us as individuals than we might think is proved by the cheerfulness many people say they experience when deprived of access to the news for a while. Secondly there is the sense of injustice that is generated in a free society where the capacity to win is balanced by an equal capacity to lose. We may ‘level the playing field’ by creating equality of opportunity but as George Orwell memorably taught us in Animal Farm, the result will still be inequality of outcome, even when a degree of redistribution of wealth is achieved through the tax system. Any attempt to go further will invariably result in dictatorship, which most people would regard as too high a price for the elimination of that ‘underclass’ which – as the Victorians ruefully admitted – is ‘always with us’.

These are ‘facts’. What we do about them almost always depends upon opinion, although the borderline between the two is sometimes very difficult to chart, especially where the facts require ‘interpretation.’ Yet the need to distinguish a fact from an opinion is probably the key lesson that history has to teach, although it cannot often do it in the way that Science does, through experiment. When it attempts to, the results are almost always interesting. Time Team contributors regularly try to show how the artefacts dug up by archaeologists were made. In Secrets of Lost Empires (BBC, 1996) fascinating attempts were made to reproduce the building techniques used by the Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Incas, resulting in important insights, amongst them the sense of triumph felt by a workforce when its collective strength has brought about a result. Butser Iron Age Farm is a long running experiment in Iron Age living which has resulted in a far greater understanding of the surviving evidence, although modern health and safety legislation, not to mention animal husbandry laws (and the occasional act of vandalism) has restricted the scope of the experiment to a degree. At the other end of the historical scale, 1900 House (Channel 4, 1999) was the first and by far the most successful of several series in which ordinary people were transported back in time and made to live in the way in which their grandparents or great-grandparents did, partly because the family concerned, the Bowlers, entered so completely into the spirit of the thing.

And here, perhaps is the final caveat that has to be entered. I have referred in passing to the debate amongst historians about empathy which is part of the wider debate about the reality of the past, as opposed to our perceptions of it. I am sure that it is possible to recover and communicate past ‘mentalities’ providing their context is understood but it is a demanding process and not one achieved by simply putting on a different set of clothes. Role-playing scenes from history can be one of the most effective ways of internalising knowledge and understanding but the teacher needs to choose situations where past and present are on a converging course. Re-trying Mary, Queen of Scots or Charles I has the appeal attached to all events with fatal consequences but both cases raised issues of fundamental importance at the time (such as the legal right to put a sovereign on trial) when a simple case of larceny derived from court records would do just as well. Of crucial importance is the question of language. It isn’t possible to think like someone unless you speak their language. In a booklet about using original sources to develop empathy I stressed the contrast between the precise, almost clipped ‘feel’ of Latin and the guttural, expressive sounds of Old English. Children can be taught to speak and think in an authentically historical way providing that they are allowed to become familiar with it a bit at a time, for example by studying one of Henry VIII’s letters to Anne Boleyn or a slightly modernised version of the Paston letters. Indeed, a great opportunity exists for someone to write a compendium of partly scripted role plays which would exploit this opportunity.

Always though, one returns to the evidence. I once heard a very well known historian admit to ‘stretching the evidence about as far as it would go’ It’s clear that he meant to remind his audience what that evidence was and to encourage them to go back to it whenever possible in order to draw their own conclusions. It is this separating of ‘fact’ from fiction that gives history its fascination and its place at the heart of the school curriculum. It may be an uncomfortable process, particularly for statesman seeking to create ideas of national unity from a sense of shared heritage but it is one of the best guarantees against dictatorship that we have. Ignorance might indeed be strength (Orwell, 1984) if we were crocodiles or elephants but to be fully human requires the right to doubt and the right to question.