28 May 2013

History Lessons

Long, long ago when I was at school we studied English history. Which was odd, as we were in N Ireland, and didn’t learn our own history, except where it impinged on what the English did. And this English history began spontaneously in 1485 and went through to 1714, though there was a minor detour to 1815. Our curriculum was wholly based on what was required for the examinations. And if history ended in 1815, it was, perhaps, because the death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte, and the subsequent scramble to produce a legitimate heir might have been too shocking.

History involved the rote learning of all the important dates in the monarch’s reign; it didn’t involve learning what these events were about, it was enough to learn the dates. We understood that James II got thrown out, but we never understood who this William was, and why some Dutch prince should get the crown. Nor what William’s wife, Mary, had to do with it all — she was merely an adjunct, even if they were supposed to be joint monarchs.

And if we understood that Henry VIII had problems getting a proper heir, just what difficulties he had in this aim, how the Church of England came into being, why the monasteries were dissolved remained unexplained, just dates to be memorised.

And history certainly wasn’t integrated with english literature; though we did Richard III, the Wars of the Roses were outwith our history, as were A Tale of Two Cities (mostly) and Oliver Twist (definitely). And we certainly didn’t do any background to Pride and Prejudice.

In those days there was no Google, no Wikipedia, not even any Cliff’s Notes or other cog sheets. We were on our own.

It took me a long time to realise that history wasn’t a series of dates, but that history was about people and what they did, and why they did what they did. And to realise just how much of what we were “taught” ignored this; how much was simply bowdlerised, sanitised; and that women played hardly any role — other than the production of heirs.

Sex, of course, didn’t exist then, so in retrospect it’s no real surprise that we didn’t learn just how much Henry VIII’s problems were related to it; or that he actually had a “natural” son, whom he made a duke. And Charles II also had a “natural” son, also made a duke, but no “legitimate” one. And we most certainly didn’t learn that the position of “Official Mistress” was recognised at the French court. As I said, sex didn’t exist, so obviously SRE didn’t exist either.

And women were only incidental, introduced as a desperate measure when there were no men as proper actors. Mary was “bloody”, and Elizabeth didn’t like her cousin, so had the Queen of Scots executed, as you do.

Did we ever hear of Mary Wollstonecraft and A Vindication of the Rights of Women? No, we didn’t; that would have been unthinkable.

What and how we were taught reflected the values of the time; everyday sexism, racism, bigotry, paternalism and prudery: memorisation without understanding. All the values of the Victorian age, even if we were told it was a “new Elizabethan age”. And yet there’s plenty of evidence that so many people didn’t live by these “values” even if we didn’t hear of it at the time, or if what we heard was shrouded in circumlocution.

Our teachers, if they weren’t quite old enough to be Victorians, had certainly been brought up by parents with Victorian ideals.

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