What do they teach them at these schools?

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.

Buffalo crimes? Not on MY watch.
Buffalo crimes? Not on MY watch.

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.

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What do they teach them at these schools?

4 thoughts on “What do they teach them at these schools?

  1. All I can say is, my public school education was completely worthless. Aside from learning to type in junior high, I honestly can’t think of one piece of useful or significant information we received. And our history education? Forget it!

    Your Gladstone story reminds me of the time a while back when I met a graduate student at a local University. Grad student, mind you.

    In conversation, it came out that she had no idea whatsoever who Lyndon Johnson was.

    I nearly fainted.

  2. Gladstone isn’t mentioned at all in the general UK history education. This is because anything vaguely to do with Empire is bad. BAD. BAD BRITAIN.

    It goes much like this:

    5-9: Iron Age (vaguely), Romans (lots), Angles and whothefucks (a bit), Norman Conquest (a lot!)
    10-11: Weren’t Nazis douchebags? The WW2 years. Also Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece… it’s a hodgepodge.
    11-13: A bit of medieval, then a fuckton of Tudors and Stuarts, focusing largely on Elizabeth I and then the Black Death. The English Civil War happened. Eh.
    13-14: Georgians to Victorians. But mainly it’s about enclosures and turnpikes and the blast furnace, and a bit of social history, and why the French Revolution caused the American Revolution, and some crap about the Empire being bad (it wasn’t). God, I miss the Empire.
    15-16: Oh, you’re doing GCSEs now. So forget anything that isn’t related strictly to your GCSE syllabus. For me, this means a fuck-ton of WW1, from Schlieffen Plan to ship mutiny, then Weimar Republic, and the stock market crashes, and the Nazis and Communist Germans face off, and Mussolini does dick moves and proves the League of Nations is a barrel of shitcookies, and then it basically stops when you actually reach WW2.

    I did not do any history at school, at all, beyond this. But while it does leave massive holes, it could be worse. In Japan all 4,000 years are taught sequentially, which often means they run out of time before they cover the 1930s. Leaving rather big hole in the history of Japan.

    So my knowledge of history comes entirely, virtually, from the fact that I am a bloodthirsty warmonger who is absolutely fascinated by military history.

  3. Jude Brimstone says:

    Yeah, as someone who went to school a little more recently… I kinda get the impression that in the States you do your recent (in the sense of the saying about how to a Brit 100 miles is a long way and to an American 100 years is a long time) history a lot more largely because the country as is (i.e. not hundreds of years of what the Native Americans were up to before anyone else got there) has that much less of it.

    What seems to be pretty much standard in my generation at least:

    Romans/Celts, lots of colouring in
    Little bit of Ancient Egypt and Greece
    Colour in pictures of characters from the Canterbury Tales
    Tudors, Stuarts
    Who led the peasants’ revolt?
    What?
    Yes, that’s right.
    What?
    Yes.
    Little bit of Georgians
    The Industrial Revolution was a thing that happened? And some guys didn’t like it and smashed things?
    Vague idea of what primary sources are

    Then hit GCSE years and suddenly fast forward to WWI and II having never done even vaguely modern history before. Or, like, history with actual politics beyond ‘there was a King or Queen and they did what the fuck they liked, except when Oliver Cromwell happened’.

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