I was having a cup of coffee this morning while trying to compose an email to a friend about a military history quiz he had set. So engrossed had I become in trying to draft the email in a way that didn’t upset him further than an earlier comment had already, that I was surprised to find the Radio 4 programme I had supposedly been listening to had ended. I started to get up to switch the radio off – I know, a radio, a bit of a giveaway as to my ancient status. Even more so when you realise it is an insurance replacement for the one stolen in a burglary c1995. It was advertised as a ‘ghetto blaster’, not something that sounds very acceptable nowadays I suspect. Still works though, along with the inbuilt cassette player/recorder. Get back to me in another twenty five years and check if this computer is still working.
Anyway, when the continuity announcer gave the title of next programme, I sat back down again. Homeschool History is part of the BBC’s approach to helping parents fill the gap left by the closure of mainstream schools in reaction to Covid-19. I’d heard a lot of fluff about this initiative but not caught any of it. The announcement had me worried even as I sat down: ‘Join Greg Jenner for a fun homeschool history lesson…’ The word ‘fun’ in this context in my experience tends to mean anything but ‘enjoyment’ and usually messes up the subject involved; be it science, maths or history, the usual victims of this faux cheery approach.
In the event it was sort of okay. There was a little too much of the gee wizz approach, what a teacher of my acquaintance used to call the ‘WOW’ factor, in it for my comfort. There were sound effects to emphasise jokes and ‘amusing’ points and the usual attempts to make incest, murder and brutal battles ‘fun’. This approach (the WOW factor made such an impression on the teacher I mentioned that they actually imported the word into lessons all the time, with hand gestures, with bemused looks from the children in response) makes me cringe.
Now I know I have a problem in that I am on the autistic spectrum* and don’t always easily understand the appeal of some neurotypical interactions but why does ‘fun’ have to equal crass humour? The ‘story’ being told was that of Cleopatra. That’s another thing by the way. Why are we still telling history through the lives of great men/women? Good to pick her rather than Caesar or Mark Anthony I suppose but why reduce Greek/Macedonian and Roman imperialism to individuals? I thought we had moved on from this approach. Anyway, her rule, fight with her sibling/husband and manipulation of and by Rome for control of Egypt is surely gripping enough without interpolations of the equivalent of whoopee cushion effects?
Now I am obviously wrong as Mr Jenner and co have made a reputation and a lot of programmes based on Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories books. So this approach works.
Or does it?
There have been a lot of books sold. A lot of programmes made. But how much actual history has been conveyed. And what type of history? I haven’t read or seen a lot of them. Some, but the approach as you will have gathered drives me crazy. It’s like having a really annoying uncle, someone who was told a long time ago he was amazingly funny and great with kids, probably as a wind up, who now insists on reading you your favourite book but with his own added fart jokes. I talk to parents and they extol the virtues of these books. I talk to the kids and they go: ‘Nah mate. Silly.’
To be fair I have met a couple of children who have read and enjoyed them (though I have my suspicions they were saying so because their parents were present). I’ve met a lot more who have got them, been given them by teachers, parents, grandparent, aunts, uncles and family friends desperate to find a responsible present which also seems cool. Those books remain unread or flicked through and unremembered.
I was bought ‘1066 And All That’ by a much loved cousin when I was about ten because I was interested in history. It was too soon. I went off and did O levels and started on A levels before I came back to it one rainy afternoon. It was and remains a very funny take on history and historians. But you have to know history before it makes sense and you get the jokes. My feeling is that the Horrible Histories approach is trying to short circuit this process.
I worry this approach to history teaching is more about the ‘fun’ than the history. Those who don’t ‘get’ history will take the jokes and those who like history will either, like me, be put off the history, or get a really bizarre interpretation of what the subject really is about. Don’t misunderstand me; there was nothing ‘wrong’ about the history in the programme. The insight into Cleopatra being farther removed in time from the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza, than she is from us was brilliant. The view of late Roman Republican power machinations as solely interpersonal relations however was one that may take years at best to disentangle and in many cases will remain the sole, erroneous, takeaway point of the exercise.
That may not matter much if we are solely bothered about why the battle of Actium was fought, but if it reduces our approach to understanding current geopolitics to whether Donald Trump and Xi Jinping get along, we probably deserve all we get from our understanding of what history can teach us.
*Yes I do. Not self diagnosed, I have a note from a very nice consultant psychiatrist. High functioning but as weird as a fruit cake apparently – not the phrase she used, but you can read between the lines. It was a relief after all those years of wondering why I had to work so hard to understand what the hell was going on in normal life.