Tuesday 25 October 2011

Turning The Lights Out – by Eleanor Updale

How to put children off history with one little book

A few years ago there was a cinema advert with the tag line ‘No one forgets a good teacher’. Various celebs talked about the person who had turned the lights on for them, setting them up for success. Some of the posts on this site have testified to the importance of encountering the right person or book at the right time.

It’s fitting that such folk are celebrated, but I think attention should also be given to people and things that have the reverse effect. I still resent the maths teacher who approached each lesson with the subliminal message ,‘You’re not going to like this, let alone understand it,’ and whoever wrote the mind-numbing text books that repelled my children from French has a lot to answer for. Will I ever forgive the diligent but remorseless woman who taught both my daughters to hate school?

A few weeks ago, I came across a book that seems highly likely to put children off history. I bought it in the Museum of Scotland. I recently moved to Edinburgh, and I love it here. However, I am acutely aware that I know very little of Scottish history. I need to mug up fast, and so it seemed like a good idea to buy a slim work for children, called Scottish Kings and Queens, which was on sale in the museum shop.

I am not in favour of burning books, but if I were forced to contribute to a conflagration, this would be the second volume I’d fling in the flames -- after Penelope Leach’s ‘Baby and Child’ (or The Doormat Theory of Motherhood, as a friend of mine calls it).

This book ought to be good. It's published by the museum service itself, and the producers claim to have had access to its wonderful collection to help them tell their story. There are, indeed, plenty of illustrations, but many of them are the sort of black and white line sketches familiar to some of us from cheap post-war text books. Very few of the colour pictures originate from the museum. The small print at the back reveals that many have been lifted from other publications. The images slice up the text almost at random, and the tone of that narrative combines with them to turn the book into a jumble of factoids and false deductions, with some profoundly misleading juxtapositions of words and pictures. I can’t help feeling that any child for whom this book was an early encounter with history would come out of the experience not only uninspired and misinformed, but also misdirected about how to think historically.

Here are some examples, with my shouty comments in square brackets:

The book opens with a one page essay on Kings and Queens, apparently assuming that the reader has absolutely no idea what they are. Alongside an unlabelled sketch of a man in doublet and hose with a bird of prey on his ungloved hand, it says:

Although it was often thought [When? By whom?] that monarchs did very little except hold court and hunt, there is much more to the job. Below: the present Queen, Elizabeth II, opens the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in 1998. [Black and white photo of the Queen, which could have been taken at any time, anywhere]
The next page is labelled ‘Royalty at War’. Here is the entire text of the author’s thoughts on this rather large issue:
Monarchs, such as Queen Victoria (below) [scrappy line drawing of QV] 1819-1901 [i.e. her birth and death dates, and not the dates of her reign] honour their subjects for courage in time of danger. [WHAT?? It turns out that this is an excuse for a large photo of a Victoria Cross] The Victoria Cross was introduced in 1856 to award [sic] ‘acts of valour in the face of the enemy’ at the end of the Crimean War against Russia (1853-56).
The image of the medal partly overlaps a photo of George V in uniform, walking along with a handful of unidentified soldiers. Beneath that is a picture of the present queen in overalls. Here’s the accompanying text:
Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) contributed to the war effort during the Second World War by learning about car mechanics [Never mind the double-entendre, what child is going to understand how that helped the fight?] Her grandfather, George V (1865-1936) [birth and death dates again] played a major part in Britain’s military action during the First World War, as the picture (above) demonstrates. [No it doesn't. It's impossible to deduce anything from the picture, apart from the fact that the king was once in the company of some soldiers. If you'd never seen an image of George V, you might not even be able to work out which man is the king. There is nothing to indicate where he was, or when, or why. And does anyone really think that George V played a 'major part' in military action?]

There’s one more paragraph in this ‘Royalty at War’ section:

Back in the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 -87) [Birth and death dates again, though she abdicated in 1567] was likewise [!!!] engaged in warfare, although it was against some of her own subjects and even her own son. In this picture she is cradling a dying member of her army, supposedly [Whose supposition? What is the nature of the doubt about this?] George Douglas at the battle of Langside [ie, in 1568, after Mary's abdication, so this is not an example of a monarch at war at all] When the battle was lost, Mary was forced to flee south to England to avoid capture.

That’s it. Those few words on the Victoria Cross, Elizabeth II, George V and Mary Queen of Scots (in that order) encapsulate the author’s thoughts on ‘Royalty at War’ in the context of a book called Scottish Kings and Queens. It is utter balderdash.
To the left of the words about Mary is the picture mentioned in the text. The book doesn't tell you this, but it's a lithographic print of a painting by Charles Landseer.
Landseer's image was created some three centuries after the event, but there is no date for it here, or later in the book, when a detail reappears. Delving into the small-print credits at the back, you can find that the image comes from the US Library of Congress, but there is no other information at all. What, then, is this picture doing in a history book – twice? Children are being implicitly invited to see it as ‘evidence’, but, as presented, it provides evidence of absolutely nothing, and there is no warning whatever that the image drips with a Victorian view of Scottish history which, though interesting in its own right, has little to do with the realities of the sixteenth century. It's tempting to think that the publishers chose it for the same reason I am using it here: it is free of copyright.

So we're on page 5, and the clock is already striking thirteen. But things get worse. The book lurches between giving the birth and death dates of monarchs and the dates of their reigns. In some cases it gives no dates at all, leaving us to dive back to the timeline at the front (which gives the reign dates, though without saying so). Another timeline in the back of the book, which has a potentially useful alignment of events in Scotland with what was going on in England and France, inexplicably ends in 1328 – just before the international links get really interesting.

The author and designers seem to fight clarity at all costs, darting around between and within reigns. There are some pieces of complete linguistic nonsense:

Even after the Union of the Crowns, visits to Scotland by rulers of the combined kingdoms were rare [ Derr -- Before that, surely they would have been impossible?]

No distinction is made between women who were ’Queen’ by virtue of being married to a king (eg, as far as I can work out, an eleventh-century consort called Margaret, of whom it is said:

It is thought [By whom?] that around 1069, Malcolm persuaded her to marry him [is the doubt about the date, or about whether he had to persuade her, or whether the marriage happened at all?]. Margaret became Queen of Scotland. [Then? Later? In her own right, or what?]

Another Margaret turns up a couple of hundred years (but only 6 pages) later. This one does appear to have been a ‘proper’ queen, though only a child. The political confusion after her death ‘possibly of sea-sickness’ in 1290 is illustrated with a painting of a glamorous eighteenth-century soldier on a horse. This sits under the words: In 1294 Edward I was at war with France. The text around the picture refers to the beginning of the ‘Auld Alliance’ in 1295 [but surely it wasn’t seen as ‘Auld’ then?].
At last, right down at the bottom of the page, the man on the horse is explained. There’s a note about the Garde Ecossais (set up a couple of centuries after everything else on the page, and three hundred years before the picture was painted). This information is separated from the Frenchified horseman by a wide black band.

That’s typical of the design of the book. It seems to work on the principle that children’s attention span is limited, and that since they will shoot around from one thing to another the information they are given should do the same. The result is not only confusing, but also pretty boring. There is no real narrative, no sense that one thing might be the consequence of another, and frequent interruptions by cutesy anecdotes, leadenly told. A special box artlessly obliterates part of a picture of Dunfermline Abbey to tell us:

Big Head

King Malcolm III was also known as

Malcolm Canmore.

Canmore in Gaelic

means ‘Great Chief’ but it could

also mean ‘Big Head’!

[A generation groans]
But at least that is actually about a king. Take a look at page 23. Suddenly, we hit a heading Wolves in Scotland , followed by drawings of a wolf, a piece of bone, and a diagram of a wolverine skull. Together they take up more than a quarter of the page. Here’s the text:
Wolves were living in the wild in Scotland in the 15th century, although James I ordered that the numbers should be kept down. The last wolf in Scotland was thought to have been killed in 1743. Below, left, is a fragment of the upper jaw of a wolf, found in Midlothian. The skull diagram shows the position, in red, of the fossil fragment. [This is not an excerpt. It is everything the book has to say on the subject. But why say it at all? What has that got to do with ‘Scottish Kings and Queens’?]

The rag bag is rounded off with a brain-dead game completely unrelated to any real events, thereby missing a chance to reinforce information in a palatable way.
Square 51: New Rebellion! You’re taken prisoner. Throw a six to escape execution and move on to 52. If you don’t throw a 6, return to START! Square 55: Establish a monastery to give thanks for your survival. Move forward one space.
Oh dear.

Children are not stupid. They know when they are being patronised, they know dodgy work when they see it, and they know when two and two are being made to add up five. What they don't have is a repository of facts in their heads, or a feel for the traps of false links and anachronisms. It's hard to imagine that this book will add to their store of knowledge, and worrying to see the sloppy habits of deduction it seems to be encouraging.

There are many reasons to admire the Museum of Scotland, but I’m embarrassed on behalf of my new homeland that Scottish Kings and Queens is being sold there, with official backing.

I hope that it is not typical of the history books children are being given in schools.
If it is, the lights must be going out all over Britain.



Katherine Langrish said...

This sounds a shocker of a book and one that would make my daughters' brilliant and exacting history teacher - who made the potentially dry subject 'the rise and fall of the Liberal Party in the early 20th century' fascinating to them - tear her hair in anguish. It's sad that history should be presented as a sort of rummage stall - burrow through it, tossing things aside, and come up with a 'factoid'.

adele said...

OMG, as the young say! Thanks for diligently typing out all the horrid bits you did...we can now reel with you. Let us hope someone removes the book quietly from the shop....

Penny Dolan said...

Sounds like a case of someone skimming through the pictures and over the few words and thinking "That's okay for children."

Elen C said...

I once got made redundant from the Education Dept at the National Museum of Scotland. Feel quite smug about that now.

(actually loved working there and go to visit whenever I'm back. Picnic on the roof terrace is lovely)

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes - I think this is the 'scrap-bag' school of history. It sounds appalling, and yet goes with the idea that you can teach people about literature by giving them a 'reader' so that they can dip into a few authors and say they understand Dickens after reading a page of Edwin Drood. Or is it:'Channel-flicking history?'

I did find Penelope Leach very helpful myself, and never thought I was a doormat parent, but I disagreed with her that one shouldn't have handknit jumpers for kids, and her advice on night feeds was pretty rubbish. But I liked the way she explained how a kid's mind works. She is more systematic than this museum publication sounds to be..

none said...

For the lights to be going out, somebody must have switched them on again.

I have never forgotten the history teacher who almost ruined the subject for me...or the teacher who brought the love back.

Okay for children. Yep. I can believe that as the explanation.

catdownunder said...

I understand this all too well. I was taught by a slew of poorly trained teachers who were sent to rural areas because they were considered to be "not good enough" to teach in city schools. My father (as principal) had the horrendous task of trying to train them on the job. I ended up loathing maths and science and learning things like history from other sources. It is not an education I would wish on any child.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

As someone who has been involved with educational publishers in developing history series for young children, I can hardly believe this in on sale in 2011. A great deal of care went on developing accurate, beautiful and interesting history books that were accessible to children. I hope someone at the Museum of Scotland takes another look at this book and has second thoughts about selling it.