Dead People are Boring; Fact!
Posted By Claire on September 17, 2013
Today’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?