I know that I must have learnt some history at school – after all, I have an ‘O’ Level that attests to the fact that at least one set of examiners now, no doubt, history themselves, thought that to be the case. However, when I dredge my mind to try and locate any facts which might have lodged there from that period the sorry truth is that they are few and far between. Unquestionably, one of the reasons for this is the quality of the text books that we were studying from. I can’t recall anything about those that I was set myself other than the size and heft of them as I carried them around with me, but I do remember the ones that I was required to teach from when I first started life as a primary teacher back in the 1970s. They were dire. There were four of these books, one for each of the junior classes. I can’t say anything about those intended for Junior 2 and 3 (Years 4 and 5) because I didn’t teach those age groups, but I do have vivid memories of the volumes set for Junior 1 and 4.
The Junior 1 book started with the cave men and made its way, via the Babylonians, through to the time of the Pharaohs. What relevance the head teacher who bought this series thought this had to my class of 36 seven year olds, most of whom had been in the country for less than a couple of years and many of whom spoke very little English is beyond me, but I was in my first year as a teacher and therefore not prepared to rock the boat and dutifully battled my way through it.
Not so by the time I came to teach Junior 4. In a single year I was supposed to negotiate my way through British history from Richard II to the end of the Second World War. Whistle stop tour doesn’t come into it. And that is when I remembered where most of what I know about history had come from – either from the theatre or from my reading of fiction. So, on the principle that what the Head didn’t actually see wouldn’t hurt him, I threw the History books out and let literature rip.
Henry V’s French campaign came to life as I stood on my desk and exhorted my class to come
Once more unto the breach dear friends
before throwing myself onto my knees to illustrate the way in which Richard II’s death had echoed down the years with Henry’s fervent prayer
Not today, O Lord,Oh, not today, think not upon the faultMy father made in compassing the crown.
We learnt about Joan of Arc through the debates raised in Shaw’s St Joan and explored what it would have been like to have been a child in that time through the pages of Cynthia Harnett’s novels about the great wool families of the English West Country. Literature had always brought history to life for me and I was determined that it would do the same for the children I was teaching.
Of course, there is always the danger with fictionalised history that somewhere along the line the facts will have been bent a little (or a lot) to fit the designs of the novelist. I suspect that that was far more the case back in the 60s and 70s than it would be today when one of the criticisms levelled at certain historical fiction is that the research shines through too strongly. Nevertheless, what reading historical novels did for me was raise my interest in the past and encourage me to find out more in my own time and at my own pace. Jean Plaidy was a great favourite, which meant that I became engaged with the Plantagenet and early Tudor periods. Later, I would discover Mary Renault and wander around the worlds of Alexander the Great and the Greece and Crete of Theseus.
But, historical fiction fell out of fashion and for years it has been difficult to find new work to offer to students to spark their interest not only in literature but also in the periods described. So, thank goodness for the likes of Hilary Mantel, who have once more made the genre respectable. It is again possible to dive head first simultaneously into both a first class novel and a new world. I’ve just finished Chris Bohjalian’s latest book The Sandcastle Girls, an excellent story, but also one which opened up to me an episode in twentieth century history about which I knew absolutely nothing, the Armenian genocide of 1915. It is an horrific tale only somewhat ameliorated by the episodes set in the present day as one of the narrators tries to find out more about her own family background. It is horrific, but that is no reason why I should avoid it and this novel has given me access to another piece of the jigsaw that is the story of the world in which we live.
I am too far away from the primary classroom these days to know how the current crop of seven, eight, nine and ten year olds are taught about the past that has shaped them. Given how centrally prescribed the curriculum now is, I suspect there are very few teachers spouting Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw from atop their classroom desks. But, I hope there is some consideration given to the part that literature can play in exciting a child’s interest in an historical period in the way that it did for me.