Dead People are Boring; Fact!

History boringToday’s post is a guest post by an Anne Boleyn Files visitor who wanted to remain anonymous, probably because she was scared of her history teacher catching up with her!

Over to Anon…

When I was at school I dropped history at the age of 14. Up until then, my school history had been a haze of sheer boredom. I didn’t learn about Henry VIII and his traumatic love life, or if I did I can’t remember it. I knew he had six wives, but primarily because I’d visited the Tower of London at the age of 9, when the Beefeater giving us the tour told us Anne Boleyn was a red head and her brother’s real name was John. It all seemed a bit fishy to me, and anyway it rained which made my sandwiches go soggy. That was my overriding memory of the day.

To me, Elizabeth I may as well have been a Spice Girl because she was simply ‘the ginger one’. I did go on a school trip to Kenilworth Castle when I was 8, so I must have had some idea why, but the only thing I remember about the trip is falling off the climbing frame and scraping my knee. It’s probably a good job J K Rowling wasn’t around at the time or the Dudleys would have forever imprinted themselves on my memory as Harry Potter’s relatives.

I can’t remember covering the World Wars, or in fact any war at school. Perhaps they thought learning about a war would cause us council estate kids to become violent and aggressive. Or should I say more violent and aggressive bearing in mind the fact that a couple of my classmates still managed to burn down our science lab, even without learning about a war. I ‘knew’ about WWII because of films like ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’, just like I ‘knew’ about the American Civil War because of ‘Roots’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’, and like so many people ‘know’ about Tudor history from ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’.

So what history did I learn at school? Well, I do vaguely remember visiting Bosworth Battlefield (although we all now know it was the wrong field). Ironically, the field I gazed at with a vacant expression akin to ‘get me out of here’ was probably the right one, but I was not to know that at the time. We also visited Telford Bridge. Sadly I do remember the Telford Bridge experience. If I visited it now I would find it fascinating. As an 11 year old I remember being told to draw the bridge in charcoal. I still have no idea why. It rained then too and my hands became black with charcoal. That’s my overriding memory of that trip, as is dropping my charcoal in the river.

The history we would have done if I had chosen it as a subject up to the age of 16 was, ‘English Economic History between 1750 and 1890’. I was told it had interesting topics like ‘tithe laws’ and other fascinating stuff. So at 14 I knew without a doubt that dead people were boring, especially when they leave one of their fields fallow. Quite honestly I didn’t care, and I didn’t care who invented the Spinning Jenny. He was dead anyway. Needless to say I chose Geography instead. Sadly that didn’t teach me about strange and exotic places. Instead, I learned a lot about soil and how to read an ordinance survey map; a skill I have never found the use for. But the point is I dropped history like the proverbial hot brick, never to have it darken my door again.

I could have remained in blissful ignorance of Henry and his wives for the rest of my life. I may still have thought of Anne Boleyn as the one who sells sexy underwear, but who I now know to be Anne Summers (silly mistake that anyone could make). But when I was about 15 a miracle happened….well David Starkey to be precise, although I’m sure he would be delighted to be called a miracle. He ran a series of factual programmes about Henry and his wives, and blow me if they weren’t interesting! David Starkey and Simon Schama brought history to life. They didn’t talk at me with voices devoid of inflection, and they were cunning enough to teach me history without me realising they were (a definite skill if ever there was one). I’m sure Starkey would have made the Industrial Revolution seem entertaining. If he had taken me to Telford would I have dropped my chalk in the river? Oh, no!

So I took a drastic step. I bought a history book. This was a book which I bought myself without having to. No one told me to buy it or read it. I did it of my own volition. Good stuff! Obviously my first books were by Starkey, and so blossomed my interest in the Tudors. But then I went mad. I bought books on the second World War and wept over Auschwitz. I read books on the Ancient Egyptians and the Mayans and wept that so much history in South America was destroyed by the Spanish, and for the thousands of innocents who were sacrificed to the Gods. I read books on the First World War and wept for the millions of young men who had perished on foreign fields. But mainly I read about the Tudors, and wept at reading about those who died on the scaffold, innocent of the crimes they had been charged with. And what did I discover, other than the fact that quite a lot of history makes me cry? I learned that dead people aren’t necessarily boring.

I do use the word ‘necessarily’ because obviously some dead people are very boring. Elizabeth I for instance. All she did was become one of England’s finest monarch’s. Anne Boleyn was so boring that no one attempted to teach me about her at school, save for a bored Beefeater who, after repeating the same story 5 times a day for 40 years was keen to spice the whole thing up a bit. What did Anne do that was so fascinating other than become the catalyst for the English Reformation and die with dignity for a crime she didn’t commit? Then there’s all those men who died in Flanders so we would have the liberty not to bother learning about them. No one mentioned them when I was at school.

Dead people are boring; fact! That’s what I would believe if it weren’t for those extraordinary people who have the capacity to bring history to life because they have the passion and the spark to do so. Telling a 14 year old that they will spend the next 2 years learning about late 18th century/early 19th century industry is about as enticing as acne and head lice. I must have studied history at school, particularly between the ages of 11 and 14, so why can I remember so little about it? To many children the answer is obvious; it’s boring.

The Industrial Revolution is enormously important, but children need diversity to keep them focused and interested. To be honest, a good bit of violence and scandal thrown into the mix normally does the trick. And just as importantly, they need to have someone teach it to them whose passion is history, rather than it being just a job. There is nothing dry or boring about history, yet many children see it that way, and leave school seeing it that way. Perhaps I was just unlucky because my history teacher had a voice like a Cyberman on valium and was about as animated as a tree stump. My interest in history was piqued outside of the classroom, and my love of it has given me much joy.

A good historian is worth their weight in gold. They are inspirational as well as entertaining, and they treat history as it should be treated; as a fascinating journey that we all have the right to take. So for all those kids out there whose history teachers smell of mothballs and who have sat through 2 hours of ‘Commoners’ Rights’ on a Friday afternoon. For those of you who get tearful at the very mention of the word ‘heraldry’ and who break out into a cold sweat at the name, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. For those who think Henry VIII was a hot Irishman with black hair, and for those who think Mary and Anne Boleyn were from Ohio after listening to the English accent being strangled to death in the space of 2 hours; non-fiction, as well as fiction, can make dead people interesting; fact!

Note from Claire

I was one of the lucky ones. I did history O’ Level and A’ Level at school and although I did study the Industrial Revolution, along with the good old spinning jenny, and land enclosure etc., I had a history teacher who was passionate about the subject and who brought it to life. I also had a father who was fascinated by history, so that helped. When I taught history to seven year-olds, I was conscious of the damage that can be done by just focusing on names and dates, and I tried to make it as practical and interactive as possible; they seemed to enjoy it and I loved it. Dressing in togas and having a Roman banquet is always fun!

I’d love to hear what your experience of history at school was like so do share. I’d also like to hear about how you came to be interested in history.

Are you a teacher? If so, what do you do with your class to make the subject interesting? What do you think of how history is taught? Is it given enough time on the curriculum? Do share your thoughts.

Are you a parent? What do you think about how history is taught? Are your children interested in the subject?

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24 thoughts on “Dead People are Boring; Fact!”
  1. History was well taught at my primary school, I remember finding it interesting, especially the Tudors. I didn’t find it so interesting at secondary school, but I still remember some of the stuff I learnt there (including the Industrial Revolution).

  2. Strange but interesting! I am absolutely passionate about the Tudors and always have been from a very young age. The opposite!.

  3. P.S They were never ever boring to me!. They were always interesting and still are today but that is just me!. 🙂

  4. I can relate to this. One of my biggest regrets is dropping history when I selected my GCSE subjects. I did this because my year 9 history teacher failed miserably in bringing the subject alive to a group of 14 year olds. The thought of having her teach me for 2 years of GCSE was enough to have me running in the direction of geography and music instead. By the age of 18 I had discovered researching my family tree and from there my interest in history has grown from wanting to know the basics of what was happening in the world during a particular ancestors life to devouring book upon book on so many different time periods of history. I now wish I had chosen that GCSE in history, you never know, I might then have followed it to A level and even beyond.

  5. i left 6th form over a year ago and to be honest i can hardly remember what i learnt in the first few years in history. i took it at GCSE but only because my mum is really interested in history and this has been passed to me. Even at GCSE sometimes i felt like loosing the will to live because it wasnt made that interesting and more tailored to the exam at the end. However i am glad we were taught about World war one. this is something i was obviously aware of but knew very little. i knew more on ww2. however in the first 2 months of my gcse i was enthralled and it affected me so much i now attend a remembrance service every year and i am looking to get involved with the 100 years mark next year. I’m so glad i watched the tudors because it restarted my passion for history and i now have many a shelf filled with books on the tudors! Fiction can help you pick up a book to learn the facts ;D

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with the author in that history is as dead or alive as the medium in which it is presented. I grew up with a history adoring father, and learned to like it myself through our discussions and travels, as well as some well done works of historical fiction. However, in college my interest was absolutely killed by a dreadful world history professor who exclusively lectured, and required memorization of names and dates, not purposes or meanings. My interest in history was completely shelved until I recently watched the tudors series, and became so fastenated that I had to learn the true, whole story of the tudor dynasty. Interest and connection is always the key for me. I remember absolutely nothing from that class, but so much from trips taken 10 years prior.

  7. I have always been interested in history and still am, fortunately during my high school years my history teacher was good and excellent in her explanations. Not many people are into history or even historical shows and movies. It is the responsibility of every teacher or lecturer to make history very interesting, and allow students to fill free to express them selves on whether they agree or disagree with historical figures and historical events. There are certain historical events that are very important and need to be taught and explained in an interesting way so that students do not get bored.

  8. I don’t remember when I became interested in history – it just seems like I always was. I don’t remember any of my teachers inspiring me to be interested (or, for that matter, any teachers who were so boring that they turned me off to it). My father was a WWII veteran, so I was always interested in that part of history (I was a notorious Daddy’s Girl and adored anything he was involved in). My parents took me to places like Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia and Gettysburg battlefield on outings when I was a child, and they were interesting to me. I probably became interested in the Tudors when I was about 15 and saw Anne of the Thousand Days. Then came my first trip to England, and my first visit to the Tower of London on my first day there, which REALLY turned me into a Tudor history fanatic!

  9. I grew up in the ’60’s. Wasn’t coordinated enough to participate in sports, there was only one television in the house and Dad controlled the channels. So, reading was the alternative leisure. I mostly read the Nancy Drews, but after going through the entire lot in the school library, I was left with trying another subject. I wandered over to the history section and picked up 2 biographies-Napoleon and Cleopatra. Although written for a 10 y/o level, (and sorry to say I don’t remember the authors) both were fascinating and informative. Couldn’t wait to read the rest of the bios. They seemed to bring history to life by bringing the people to life. I still have a soft spot for bios of Napoleon (and more so Josephine) and Ancient Egyptian leaders and civilization, but continue to expand. Obviously Anne B and the Tudors are up there (or wouldn’t be at this site) but pretty much anyone who seems interesting. No, history is not boring if you can see it as people not names and dates.

  10. I do think having someone interested in history at home makes a big difference to the attitude of children in the classroom. If your parents think history is boring, there’s a good chance that the teacher will have more of a struggle to engage you. But a good teacher is vital, and doesn’t need to resort to gimmicks. There’s been a debate recently on whether the present tense should be used to relate history, to make it more “relevant”. Not necessary if a good story is told well.

    Just as an aside, much of the emphasis now seems to be on social history and how people lived, again I guess with the idea of “relevance”. When I was at school I detested that sort of history – I found the big events and characters of history so much more interesting. Still do, on the whole.

  11. Iv’e always been interested in history,even as a little girl. I don’t find it boring at all,because a lot of things that are happening for example in the Middle East ,are the result of things that have occured in the past.History is never boring, unless some teacher makes it so.

  12. I have a sweatshirt that says: “History buff. I would find you more interesting if you were dead.” I have been in love with history since I was eight. Unfortunately, as an American, it was English history. I did have good teachers and I twice won the prize for my school for American History sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution. I even got to take a special advanced history seminar where we had to research and write a paper. I wrote about the Loyalists in the American Revolution. I was so happy to get to college so I could finally take English history. My area of concentration was the 15th and 16th centuries.

  13. US experience here. I don’t remember being taught a lot of world/European/Western Civ type of history in grade school, although I adored Margaret Irwin’s Young Bess by the time I was in 7th or 8th grade (ages 12-14, give or take), and I know we covered some ancient history earlier. High school was standard Western Civ in freshman year, from Mesopotamia up to however far we could get (usually between WWII & Vietnam). US history was junior year (don’t ask why we skipped a year) and that too was standard colonization onwards, with a little about the Indians who lived there 1st. I was lucky too have a good teacher that freshman year of high school, with a good lively delivery and quirky descriptions that helped things stick. Introductory college courses were much the same, just a little blunter about some of the bad things.

    As for me personally, I think I fell into history by inclination and my habit of reading all sorts of biographies. I found Elizabeth I and was snagged; I just went backwards from her. The medieval, Renaissance and classical trappings just speak to me!

    One last note: in US history II in college, I wrote a nice little paper using my usual style–a bit lively, shake up sentence structure, etc–that had done well in any number of English and Composition classes and got it back covered in red! My grade was decent (B+, IIRC), but most of the places I had used a pronoun were marked. Anything that wasn’t subject-verb was marked. According to the teacher, who ironically was a good lecturer, that was NOT how one wrote history. He wanted me to constantly reuse the people, things, and place names instead of he, she, her, him, it. For example, “Roosevelt did this. Hitler did that in response.” That was how it was supposed to done. My reaction then and now was: “if that’s how history is supposed to be written, no wonder everyone thinks it’s so damn boring!”

  14. I should have added that the people, big events, and what I call “the gossip of history” are of especial interest, and what I like to trot out to those who think the dead are plaster saints and duller than the dust they’ve become. Although social history is also interesting, maybe because of my writer side!

  15. I think that schools have no real idea how to approach history or make it come to life. The fact is sadly most history teachers are boring, not the people they attempt to talk about and my experience was I already knew more than my teacher before I went to school as I had a natural talent for history. We did the normal stuff from junior level: Romans, pre history, or as we now know and I believed at the time; pre rubbish; then the Normans and so on from 11 aged onwards and the Tudors followed fom this and the Stuarts. By the time we reached 14 and prepared for O level it all became boring, even for me a history buff: oh the wars with Napoleon were interesting, but the social history was were I glazed over. We went on the usual trips to Speke Hall, here in Liverpool, a beautiful Tudor house built and finished in the 1590,s although a house sat on the site from the 1480’s: the Norris and then the Wyatt family lived here. We got the normal Shakespeare is correct and every other source is ignored history and the normal Tudor triumphant and Richard 111 is a baddy rubbish. Much history was actually was taken from this idea, and not real history at all and the myths were taught of course that all the Tudors were dirty and their food grubby which is a load of rubbish and I got into trouble a few times for stating so; I read a lot more extensively than most people in the class which was in the 1970’s and made my own mind up about what was nonsense and what was history.

    I had a mental health breakdown when I was 11 and had to leave school for a time for a health place and stayed there for several months. I hated it as the staff where abusive, but it had one great thing; a school that had teachers that taught you the way you wanted to learn and what you were interested in. I was not interested in doing Romans again and wanted more late Medieval history and early Tudor and did some rather interesting projects on this period learning much that I would not have had I been at school, even reading some of the more advanced studies at the time, about the court of Henry VIII; it was most fascinating and I knew more than my teacher when I went back to school aged 13. I also in my second year had a great teacher who really did know her subject and brought the entire thing alive. I also asked for more homework and studied more as I wanted to go deeper and she allowed me to do so. As a result I found history a really interesting subject and became passionate about it it. I still am passionate and getting even more passionate as I get older.

    Mrs Pink in the third year was an interesting person when it came to history but she was not that great at the subject. However she introduced some original documents and that also made the subject better for some people who wanted clearly to be elsewhere. More and more project work was introduced and more competition was introduced into the class; more visits and a broader knowledge of the Reformation that did not just want us to hear that Queen Mary was bad and Queen Elizabeth was good; that made history more of a debate and more balanced. We even spent more time in London at the palaces and the Tower than other schools may have done; visiting at least four times in two years for a few weeks. We were also encouaged to do personal studies in the fourth year and this broke it up at O Level as well. It was when doing the industrial revolution that I lost some of my passion for history and decided I no longer wanted to teach the subject.

    However, after leaving school I continued personally to be involved in history at a local level and to read more and more and with new discoveries on televison and the advent of things like the Discovery Channel it has been like learning all over again. I went back to university when I was 30 and did a subject that combined social studies and various social history and women’s history. There were some rather complex and interesting individuals that were dynamic to learn about. I also rediscovered my passion at the end of my university career in doing locally run further education courses for pleasure that made it fun again to have a passion for history. Taking several courses set in the middle ages and Ancient history and Egypt and from the original docuemnts and sources like old cuniform slabs and stuff and the legends and myths and old languages it has brought it all back to life. I also recently did some more courses on the Reformation and of course the Richard III mania has been caught. My passion on holiday is to take a theme and to go to as many places connected with that part of history as I can and so I have never lost the bug; just gotten bigger ones. Thank you for sharing this article; it is a great shame that people are served so poorly in school when it comes to history.

    A few years ago a couple of us from further education were sent to visit some schools and speak to young people doing A levels and one of the saddest thing they said they did not do history for was that it did not have any meaning as a Brittish subject to them. The boys also bemoaned the fact that there are no heroes in history any more. What happened to Drake and Raleigh and others? Interesting as African and Indian history is to Brittish school children; it is not their own history. Our history has been banished from classrooms and that is wrong. By all means teach Indian history as a cultural activity, but also teach people about the great Brittish heroes and stop making Britain a dirty word in schools. By all means tell kids the truth that Hawkins and Drake were pirates and slavers, but do not down their achievments as great sea dogs. We need to learn about different cultures and different history and the pyramids are wonderful, but we also need to learn about our own ancient monuments in Scotland and Ireland and Whiltshire and Stonehenge! Black history in the 18th century achieved much in England and of course is of much importance, but do not just teach this in schools. We may have neglected this in the 70s but now we have gone the other way and do not teach English history at all. Our kids need historical heroes as well as sports heroes to look up to and history has to be learned or the mistakes of the past will never be of use to us. History is alive and is always being made. I would appeal to schools: please do not let our kids lose passion for it; or they will never learn anything.

    1. Bandit Queen you are so right, a lot of English history isn’t being taught now in many schools and it’s so wrong, why deny them their heritage? In a recent survey many children when asked who Churchill was thought it was the dog on the tv advert, that’s absolutely appalling, iv always loved history to and was never happier than when my head was stuck in a big old book on the Medieval and Tudor history and the books by Jean Plaidy and Norah Lofts bought those long dead characters to life for me, I agree that most history teachers were dull, it’s how you teach people history that’s important you have to inject a certain flair into it that keeps the listeners interested, to me history is important it’s what happened years ago that shaped the land we know and the world we live in today, and I think as a history buff that it’s very very sad that some people have no knowledge of our history or the interest to learn it.

  16. My interest in history started when my parents took me to the Huntington Art Museum in Pasadena, California and I saw the paintings of “Blue Boy” and “Pinkie” by Thomas Gainsborough. I was fascinated by how they were dressed and I wondered how they lived. We went back many times and I had to see those paintings. I was about 7 at the time. Watching shows produced by the BBC also encouraged my curiosity as US television did not make anything like that. Alastair Cook’s series on US history was better than anything we learned in the classroom.

  17. I can’t remember not loving history. I grew up in California which has a varied and interesting past, and my father loved historic sites so we went everywhere. He had had a fabulous history teacher who had taught him a lot of interesting facts about our town, and I’ve passed those down to the next generation.

    So much of history is passed from one generation to the next and I used to think that wasn’t very reliable, that was until I started researching my own family and discovered that all of the things I had been told were true, and that things that had been hinted at could be explained once I uncovered more facts.

    Genealogy is a great way to teach history. When you can link someone who is linked to you to a place in time, it makes it personal, and hence, more interesting, (at least to you). We grew up knowing about our ancestors, and my son loves hearing stories that make what he’s learning in school more real. He loves history because to him it’s not all about facts and dates, it’s about real people.

    I had a decent history education and knew all of the facts and dates, but it wasn’t until high school that I had a teacher who made the stories I learned about my own family come alive. He taught us all about context, and how you can’t really understand history unless you leave your personal prejudices and opinions at the door. History, he said, wasn’t made by people like you, it was made by people who lived in the past when life was very different. It isn’t fair he said, to judge them by the standards of our day, but to try to understand what they did within the context of their lives and experiences.

  18. I have always loved history any kind but my favorite is the Tudor s but it wasn’t though school it was though books cause I think reading and history go hand in hand bring the people to life with your own imagination I think so many people are facinated with the Tudor s because they were all interesting in there own way and I think we can all find something to relate to especially concerning the queens weather your a wife mother lover or lost someone it reminds you they were still human and plus times wear never dull back then it great more people want to learn about history and the lessons it can tell and sometimes secret s aswell .

  19. I know where all of you are coming from. Starting in Junior high, We had to do state history, in my case Texas history. Then American history that is where Slavery was taught. I will NEVER forget my teacher telling us how silly it was to hear African Americans complain about slavery. Her exact words were ” Slaves were never treated baldy, they were someone’s property, and people don’t mistreat their own property!!” Even at 12 I knew she was a crazy racist.
    Then I took world history. The people in history were not what we learned, but rather, wars, the dates and times and how long they lasted.
    The only thing I “knew” about Anne was that she had 11 fingers, and that king Henry killed ALL his wives.
    I have to credit the The Tudors, I knew it was based on Some facts and I loved the show, which made me very interested in the peoples real lives, that brought me here and to other sites as well as good books on the matter. At 42 I cannot get my hands on enough material. I have been cheated out of such rich history. The Borgias make me want to find as many books as possible. All the members of that family are fascinating, I do not think I will ever be able to afford a trip to London, it saddens me, but My books will always make me feel better. Now I just need to find a good site to learn more about the Borgias, and the entire English Monarchy. Anyone have any links. I know a historians worst nightmare is Shows like The Tudors, but it was fascinating enough to make me pursue the truth and for peeps like me that’s Amazing.

  20. Well Dana, I am a historian and I love the Tudors and the Borgias on TV. I think most historians are brought to a love of history through film or fiction and as historians we should never forget the human element – it is the story is us, all of us.

  21. History I hated it I took the subject but I don’t remember much when I was in secondary school I saw the movie I believe it was Young Bess I know there is a book out with that title anyway I saw the movie and I was hooked I had to find out more so into the school Library I went That was how I found out about the Tudors. When in High school I got a teacher so bad that I just wanted to be out of her class she concentrated so much on dates and year more then telling us what happened and bringing it alive for us then bringing in the dates to her the dates were everything I still am not good at remembering exact dates but because Im interested and want to know what is going on I certainly do much better

  22. I was lucky to have a father who was a history teacher but also had the knack of making it interesting. Conversely, the history I learnt at school was dreadfully tedious and never came alive for me. As a parent of 3 young children I am desperate for them to appreciate that it can be fascinating so have tried everything from sitting them in the middle of an Roman amphitheatre with eyes closed, imagining what it used to be like to taking them to the battlefields of Flanders this summer and visiting my great uncle’s grave there. Hopefully they will at least have an appreciation of the breadth of the subject sufficient to find something in it which interests them enough to continue to research it and to learn to love it.

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