Many thanks to everybody who’s taken the time to read, re-tweet or comment on my last blog. It’s genuinely humbling. Three points came up from the responses which I think are worth discussing further.
First, @Louise35812631 accused me of suggesting that schools are guilty of perpetuating #ww1 myths. She’s right, I did. Now, Louise is clearly a dedicated and innovative professional history teacher who works hard to have her students engage critically with History as a subject. Her article makes that plain. I am sure she has many colleagues who are equally dedicated. No-one sensible believes that they teach Blackadder as Fact. Indeed, she makes a sophisticated point about her job being about teaching ways of analysing the world, rather than imparting facts. I agree, Me too. Indeed, as someone who teaches undergraduates history, I am continually impressed by the job she and her colleagues have done. The students who walk through the doors of my university are (mostly!) committed to their subject with a remarkable level of engagement. Many of them are equipped with terrific skills of critical analysis. Which makes it all the more surprising, then, that those first year undergraduates who turn up to my ‘Myths of The First World War’ course are almost universally awash with outdated historiography and half-remembered popular narratives. That’s the only real reason I have for being concerned, and the only evidence I have that something’s not going 100% right somewhere.
The reasons for this state of affairs, I don’t know. Although I can guess. Some of it is no doubt, as Louise explained in her tweets,to do with financial constraints sometimes meaning history must be taught by non-specialists. I hope and trust that doesn’t happen more than occasionally at A Level but I guess it might more often with younger age groups. It’s not only History classes where #ww1 gets taught, of course, which might be part of the problem. And there’s no doubting the sheer scale, complexity and intractability of the war itself. It’s a tough subject for all of us. Finally, of course, many students not only leave school, but graduate with history degrees, having done no courses and gathered only fuzzy ideas about the First World War. As, indeed, I have only the dimmest of outlines of Anglo-Saxon history. So I’m more than happy to accept Louise’s idea that it’s not history teachers who are responsible, but schools must surely share (repeat, share) some of the responsibility?
I definitely don’t mean to take sides in the Michael Gove/Richard Evans debate from earlier this year, by the way. A plague on both their houses, so far as I’m concerned. The only thing worse than being attacked by Gove is being defended by Evans.
A much more detailed and systematic discussion of this and other issues can be found in this excellent report by the brilliant Catriona Pennell’s team:
The second point is linked. If historians – wherever they work – see their mission over the next 4 yours as merely correcting myths about ‘lions led by donkeys’ and ‘shot at dawn’, then we are missing a much bigger and more important point and indeed a glorious opportunity. Merely to spend our time refuting the myths peddled by Liddell Hart, AJP Taylor and their wannabe Mini-Mes is accept their agendas, play the game by their rules: and so, to lose. Instead, we need to take advantage of the opportunity the next 4 four years offer to move away from traditional narratives and to demonstrate that this was a true World War. It was fought not just on the Western Front and self-evidently not by British males alone. It involved people all over the globe, the German hausfrau as much as the Bengali jute farmer or the French poilu. It gives us a chance to show how powerful history can be when we look at ‘stories’ not just from the perspectives with which we are comfortable. History is a story with many sides and we need to broaden the discussion of the shortcomings of how we look at the First World War away from this Anglo-centric and Western Front bias. Also, we need to avoid the (great) danger generated by this centenary of treating 1914-18 as somehow exceptional, as existing outside history, rather than of it being part of the warp and weft. The war had roots well before 1914, and consequences long after 1918. Hell, even in the narrowest sense, the war didn’t even finish on 11 November 1918 but continued in places at least into 1922 or 1923.
Thirdly, this blog
from one of Australia’s most respected First World War historians was recommended to me today. It resonates strongly with me. I think that amongst many other excellent points it’s warning you to be careful of me, too! And it’s right to do so. Empiricism and scepticism are the default settings of the historians, and perhaps the only life skills we teach which are genuinely useful to all.
Much of this seems, as I read it back, terribly pompous. I apologise. Those who know me well will agree that I can’t help that! Some of it also, however, seems rather patronising. All I can say is, it certainly isn’t meant to be, and I’m sorry if that’s how it comes across.