October is the cruellest month (in history teaching, at least)

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October, not April, is the cruellest month, at least in schools. The gloss has well and truly worn off the new school year, whilst ahead stretch long hours of darkness, bad weather and the League of Nations.

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I sometimes wonder just who controls what’s taught in history classrooms, and – much more often – why it isn’t me. I was thinking this quite recently when I was reflecting on this year’s anniversaries. 2009 was a particularly good year for them. If you lived in Cambridge, it was hard to miss the fact that the university is now 800 years old. As well as the publication of the Origin of Species, the year saw the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and that of Abraham Lincoln; it was also the tercentenary of the battles of Poltava and Malplaquet and the five hundredth anniversary of the accession of Henry VIII. (Or to put it more positively, of the death of Henry VII, a monarch I find hard to like.)

It was also a hundred years since the Navy Scare of 1909 when, as Churchill memorably put it, “In the end a curious and characteristic conclusion was reached. The Admiralty had demanded six [dreadnoughts]; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.”

What a collection of stories all this represents. I think I could guarantee to make any of these interesting. Darwin, his finches, and the race – if anything lasting twenty years can be called a race – to publish the theory of natural selection ahead of Alfred Wallace. Think of the decisive clash of the Great Northern War at Poltava, with Charles XII directing operations from a litter, having been shot in the foot.

Or the ‘butcher’s bill’ of Malplaquet, a victory which probably did more to undermine the power of Marlborough than a defeat would have done. The golden dawn of young king Harry, which must have looked a little less than golden to Empson and Dudley as they awaited the headsman. Then the naval arms race between Britain and Germany which saw three men of genius – Churchill, Fisher and Tirpitz – struggle for the destiny of Europe. Yes, I think I could make something of all of these. And yet tomorrow I’m going to teach the League of Nations.

Don’t get me wrong. It has a certain pathos, as stories go. I think pupils studying the history of the twentieth century should know something about it. It’s just not terribly exciting. (Anyone who’s ever tried to explain what we mean by a ‘secretariat’ to a class of 14 year-olds will know exactly what I mean.) And I’m less and less certain how important it really was.

I imagine in another sixty years someone will be in what used to be my classroom, teaching the history of the United Nations. You can say whatever you like about the UN; its eradication of smallpox, its grand conferences, its never-failing optimism that if we could all only sit down and talk about things, all would be well. The trouble is that my putative successor is going to have to mention the events that took place in a small Bosnian town called Srebrenica in July 1994. I imagine that this will cause at least some of her or his pupils to wonder whether it was worth devoting very much time to this organisation.

The same is true of the League. My pupils may not know anything yet about Manchuria or Abyssinia. But they all know that the First World War was followed by a Second, and that may suggest to them, I suspect, that there’s a certain lack of proportion in their history course. Especially as that course covers neither of these two conflicts, a perverse selection of the material for which I have yet to receive any justification, let alone a convincing one.

Of course, I’m not being wholly serious; there is always something of a conflict between what’s immediately interesting and those topics which help create a necessary context. Nor do I think that history is about providing some sort of entertainment; I’m quite happy to cover things I don’t find especially exciting if I think they’re important. I’m just not sure about the League of Nations.

Still, part of a history teacher’s job is to resolve such conflicts or even, where this can’t be done, to conceal them. It might be even better to be completely honest and admit to my goggling pupils that, on some occasions, I find certain topics neither interesting nor important. But I think that may be a step too far. Regardless of my own feelings, the pupils must follow a course and pass an examination. They’ll find this all the easier if they are convinced that the topics covered are fascinating and significant, and they won’t do so unless I can teach them with apparent conviction. I’m sure I shall manage it somehow.

There’s a rather different problem with my Lower Sixth group; I’m going to be doing the origins of the American Civil War. My particular focus this week is the nature of domestic slavery in the ante-bellum South. I’ve no doubt about the importance of this topic, and it would be hard, I think, not to find it interesting.

The biggest difficulty will be to avoid anachronistic judgements. It’s all too easy for students to come away with the notion that Northerners were all good and that Southerners were all bad. It’s extremely difficult, for example, to get them to take seriously the notion that Southerners such as John C Calhoun were perfectly sincere when they argued that slaves were better off in Christian America than they had been in pagan Africa.

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This is a different sort of challenge from that posed by the League of Nations. I don’t know that I shall be any more successful in meeting it. Still, I shall do my best and reflect that November – a crueller month even than October – is still some way off. And by then the League will be history.