In addition to teaching history, I tutor students in both history and English. Usually I’m much more in demand for English, which everyone takes, but this year I seem to have quite a lot of history students so far. My students all go to different schools, and as a result they’re all doing slightly different topics in preparation for their exams.
Although I’m mostly used to it by now, there’s still something a little odd to me about the way the British system teaches history. Not bad at all, but odd; where US schools tend to go for the broad sweep of world or American history, with a focus on local history in younger years, the British system focuses in the teen years on a very limited number of topics but in great depth.
The idea behind this is that it’s supposed to give the students skills in source analysis, critical thinking, and so on, rather than just memorising a simple timeline and some key dates. Once you’ve developed those skills, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re studying the history of surgery or the rise of Hitler or whatever. The skills are, as they say, transferable.
My point isn’t to argue that this is or isn’t a good idea — like any teaching strategy, it has good points and bad ones. But in some cases, it can be quite hard to separate the specific unit you’re teaching from the background knowledge the students need but don’t necessarily get in this system.
For instance: one group of students are currently doing a thing on the history of migration into and out of Britain. Interesting stuff, actually — they’ve done some stuff on the Jewish community in the middle ages and the early modern period, and they’re just moving on to the Huguenots. Now I have never known much about the Huguenots — like, I could say “they were French Protestants who moved to England to escape persecution in the late 17th century,” and maybe add a few details about the, er, evolving position of Louis XIV on religious topics. Um, and I guess there are some legacies of the Huguenot presence in English names and stuff?
So I was a little unsure about this unit and brushed up on the Huguenots a bit before we got going. I’m glad I did; it was interesting stuff. But talking to the students I discovered that the whole thing started with explaining to them what the different between a Catholic and a Protestant was. And … I mean, basically in terms of how decorated churches were supposed to be.
And that took me aback. There’s an immediate impulse to go “what the hell?” but honestly it’s not that surprising. For most British kids, religion in general and the differences between various flavours of Christian in particular — these are not terribly important topics. Most are probably not aware of the religious proclivities, if any, of their classmates or neighbours. And when you zoom in on specific periods or themes only, a lot of the kind of basic background stuff can get lost. Of course, the idea is that this unit teaches kids what the difference between Catholics and Protestants is, what an absolute monarchy is, etc., etc. But if you came up in a system that did it the other way around it can be a little perplexing.
(I may be biased because for me, university was the experience of being thrown in at the deep end in British history, an experience that was certainly educational but also frustrating and confusing.)