Many’s the year ago as an undergraduate, I mentioned in passing to a British friend that William Gladstone had said or done such-and-such. My friend replied “I don’t really know who he was.” Now, you, dear reader, have just realised that this was a perfect opportunity for me to spread the tale of William Gladstone, Cannibal or William Gladstone, Buffalo Vigilante. But at the time I was just shocked, thinking that this was basically the equivalent of an American not knowing who Abe Lincoln was, or similar.
But now, several years (17 is “several,” right?) later, I feel like I have a new perspective on this. At the time, my friend said “I did Tudors and Stuarts,” and I did not quite understand what that meant at the time. Today, having had a little more experience of the system, I see what that actually means. It’s an interesting way to teach history, although I don’t feel like I can say if it delivers on its stated goals.
Now, I once thought this was a difference between the American and British systems, and it may be. But there’s also the possibility that it just represents where I went to school. Let me explain.
You know how you frequently see magazine articles, books, and so on that start of with the premise “the history they didn’t teach you in school”? At least two-thirds of the time that turns out to be something that they taught me in school. Medieval empires of West Africa? Yup. The society of feudal Japan? You bet. The horrors of the slave trade? Postwar China? Native American perspectives on American history? Yes to all of them.
Now, it may be that the people who talk about how these things aren’t taught in schools are just older than me — that’s one possibility. And it may also be that I went to very unusual schools — a public school system in a very wealthy part of northern California. But on the other hand, I’m pretty sure we just used the bog-standard history textbooks for both world and American history.
I do wonder, sometimes, if people’s memory of what they learned in school isn’t much more the product of a general pop-culture sense of history. I could be wrong.