Saturday 3 September 2011

History - an endangered subject?

By Eve Edwards

Sitting on the train from Edinburgh coming back from the International Book festival I had time to read the
Observer from cover to cover. As we flicked by the historic towns of Berwick, Durham, York, I came across an article by the MP Tristram Hunt. He noted the fall in percentage of State School children taking History at GCSE (now only 30%) and wondered if this would end up in a generation who did not know where they had come from.

His suggestion chimes with a book I have been reading over the summer - Future Minds by Richard Watson (very highly recommended). Full of fascinating observations about the digital age, he quotes in support of his argument the telling phrase that we are raising children who are 'mentally agile but culturally ignorant' (Bauerkin). For a writer of historical fiction this poses both a threat and an opportunity.

The threat is obvious. My kind of writing will fall out of fashion and the contracts dry up! It has been something of a Cinderella genre for a while. When one of my books (under another pen name) won a couple of major prizes in 2006, I remember there being much discussion in the literary magazines if it was time for fantasy to move over and let in another genre. Well, reader, I'm afraid fantasy has stayed put. Wizards and vampires continue to trump in sales all historical children's fiction. History is respectable but has not yet shaken the marketing departments to the core with their franchise possibilities.

On the other hand, the lack of historically minded young people browsing the shelves is not mirrored in the adult fiction market where most recent winners of the literary prizes, and many of the most successful books in terms of sales, have been historical: Wolf Hall, The Lacuna, The Tiger's Wife, to name but a few recent winners. Why the difference?
Perhaps history is too difficult, requiring too much context and thought? I would reply that if so, let us make sure we all read that which is difficult, and challenge youngsters to do so too, because otherwise real life is going to be a massive shock to the system. We don't want to let our minds become nothing but fantasy filled fluff. (I should note I write fantasy too - and love it! But too much of a good thing...)

Another possibility for the decline is that maybe as a teenager, many of us do not think there is much to learn from the past. The future is now and is our generation. They (meaning anyone over 25) have made all the mistakes; we are different. We are the Children of the revolution (*breaks into song....*) Ah-hem. Sorry about that. Back to my thesis. Then you get past 25 and realise that you are making the mistakes, or caught up helpless in a system that is going wrong, and suddenly the wisdom of other generations begins to look worth exploring, even if just to know you are not alone in your flawed nature. Fiction about the past takes us to meet our ancestors and see life from their view point, particularly those parts of history that have been hidden until a writer lifts the lid for us on the unfamiliar or unexplored.

(Hands on history teaching in our family!)

Of course, not all of us are or were like that imagined teenage rebel disengaged from the past. In fact, I expect everyone reading this blog to have been in the 30% who would opt for History simply because they want to find out what happened. And a third is still a relatively healthy number, Mr Hunt. The reason for decline in numbers is probably more to do with the wider question of the state of 14-16 education but that's another blog.

This brings me to the opportunity. From what I have seen of my daughter's syllabus, the GCSE is actually much more interesting than the one I did as an O level. One major paper is devoted to the history of medicine, for example, a fascinating cross-cutting theme that gets away from rich/noble white man's history that was the staple of most teaching when I was at school. I think this shows a creativity in teaching that matches the kind of books we historical novelists aspire to write. And if the classroom influence on historical knowledge is flagging, we are needed now more than ever. It may be that historical novels will be the only source a young person will read about a particular era so it is up to us to help carry on the historical knowledge to the next generation. Without a preparation through reading about the past, how can we hope to understand the future?

Albert Szent Gyorgyi said about his field, Biochemistry, 'Discovery is an accident meeting a prepared mind.' I think that is true of all discoveries, in life as well as literature. Keep on reading and writing about history, my friends, because it is the best preparation a mind can have.

Interested in writing for young adults? Then join Eve (wearing her Julia Golding hat) and poet Valerie Bloom at the Arvon writing course this September (26th to 1st October), Totleigh Barton, Devon.

Eve Edwards' Lacey Chronicles are out now in the UK and the US. Visit her website here.


catdownunder said...

Just had a bookseller friend here who said that schools tell her there is "no time" to teach poetry or Shakespeare in English. I imagine that they believe there is no time to teach history at all.
We need to understand the past to be able to put the present in context and create the future.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Hear, hear, Eve!

Those of us who write historical fiction have not a great calling perhaps, but a noble one!

What got me started on my whole life as a Classicist, then teacher, then writer of historical fiction was a book. One single book. An historical novel I read when I was 19 years old. It altered and influence the course of my life. Until I read that book, I thought history dull and boring. But from the moment I read it – and for the past 30+ years history – has continued to be one of my life's great passions.

(My life-changing book, by the way, was Mary Renault's magnificent historical novel set in Classical Athens, The Last of the Wine.)

Nikki - Notes of Life said...

I did GCSE History, although it's been well over a decade now! (So bare in mind my opinion is based on what I was taught, rather than what they might teach now).

History wasn't made interesting when I was in school. I think you have to grab a kid's attention and captivate them otherwise they think it's just dull and something they don't need to know.

My memories of history focused on King Henry VIII, Queen Victoria and both World Wars (which interested me as my Grandad fought in the 1st and was a Home Guard in the 2nd).

I would have loved to have focused on family history a little in school (as that would have taught us how to research history and I'm sure would help get kids interested in their own history).

I also think pinpointing exciting times in history would captivate kids and then interweave them with lesser known parts of history. But, in the end, I think it's all to do with how it is taught (and that goes for other subjects too, not just history).

adele said...

Will come back to comment later on as off on a trip to Historic Ely! But a very interesting and thought provoking post! Thanks, Eve.

Unknown said...

Historical novels were how I learned history in elementary through middle school because in my part of the US there's very little history taught during those years (EOG tests for math and English overrule them). Now that I'm in high school, historical novels teach me the history that gets skipped over in classes and can make it more real, connect it to me on a more personal level.

In my state, world and US history are required high school classes. Many students take AP US history as well, though few take world or European (they're much harder to find; I had to take Euro online). The biggest thing I took away from AP Euro was how history is all connected to itself. It's pretty cool to analyze historical processes. :) Unfortunately, I think most students walk away from their history courses without having absorbed much.

Rebecca-Books said...

I've just finished my History GCSE, and for me, a lot of people want to do it because it helps with so many future jobs. There were about 120 people out of 200 in my year that did the GCSE.
For us, we did zilch English History and focused on Nazi Germany and Modern US History from around 1917. It was nice to learn about these but I would have liked some of our own history too...

Linda B-A said...

I couldn't agree more. And after reading Caroline's comment I must get hold of a copy of 'The Last of the Wine'. I think a lot of us have come to history through historical fiction. I did history at A-Level because of Rosemary Sutcliff (and, oh, what a let down! But that's another story). I love how good historical fiction can bring the past alive and can educate at the same time. But it has other uses, too. I kept this clipping from the Guardian in my files because I thought Julia Eccleshare made a really good point about the restrictions of contemporary realism and the comparative freedom historical fiction affords to the writer : ‘Children’s books often provide education as well. They enable children to explore and empathise with other people’s situations. As children become more sheltered, this is an increasingly important role for fiction. With realism restricted by fears for safety, fantasy and historical fiction allow children freedom to roam freely.’

Alex said...

Teaching to the test (math and reading) are often so focused on that subjects like history or science fall by the wayside. When I taught 4th grade, I taught history to the kids during Friday afternoon "cool down" time and they loved it. Sometimes I gave creative projects to do at home and had almost 100% participation. Also, I always encouraged them to read any historical fiction we had in the school library. There is nothing like a good historical fiction author to connect a reader to the past.

Rebecca said...

I did GCSE and A Level history but developed a real love for it just after my A Level exams when I went o London and visited the Tower and Hampton Court. It really brought it alive for me and I think maybe schools should do more history trips during the year based on what they are studying.

I'm sure I would have loved history earlier if I had had the opportunity of visiting some of the sites studied.

Also, historical sites do need to make a better effort to make themselves less dry. I remember being dragged round the Hardian Wall sites before they started to modernise the exhibitions and hating it. Went back a few years later and it was all brought to life. Wonderful.

Walter Luke said...

I think that part of the problem is simply that children haven't lived long enough to have reflected upon the passage of time, and how one thing leads to another. When I was younger history was just a series of fantasy worlds, all more or less disconnected from one another. When I got older, I started to notices changes in society over the course of my lifetime, and find parallels in the past (which, suddenly, didn't seem that far away). It may be a little harder for children to appreciate history because they don't have very much of their own yet.

Katherine Norman said...

There are different syllabuses for History. And different options within those. There seems to be a current trend towards modern history options. Personally the ones I would be least interested in. And to cover the same ground as earlier in school.

In the second year of GCSEs I did one a bit like the first on this list:
Included history of medicine and American West. It also included a Modern history module - school chose 20th century China and a local studies coursework module.
I have to say that my school chose what I would consider the most interesting options - medicine, American West and China. Currently it seems the same syllabus only contains 3, rather than 4 parts we had.

Katherine Norman said...

Coming from a different angle.
I home educate my children. So we can do what ever we want in however much depth we want. My daughter (8) loves history and so do most of her friends. But they get to follow it in their own way - and each of them develops different interests. One loves Ancient Egypt, another has taken a thematic approach with an interest in warfare, another loves the Georgian period etc etc.
For us historical fiction is one of foundations of history education. Introducing the ideas of time, people with different stories in different places and times.
I think there are problems with primary history in that it isn't chronological, and jumps around too much - not only in time but in place. My daughter certainly agrees - and although we have run through English history once - she wants to go back over it again before branching out to other parts of the world.