Living in the past?

Well, little did I suspect that last week’s ‘A brief history of dates‘ would be the post that would generate the most number of views – some three hundred – since ‘Thunderbirds are Gove’. All I ever wanted to do was to point out that history involves a great deal more than memorising dates, and that some students found writing academic essays inappropriate to their needs and abilities.

From the tweets and comments, it seems to have stirred up considerable resentment from a number of seemingly distraught, distressed, enraged and hysterical history teachers. On Twitter I’ve been labelled as ‘fashionably-minded’, accused of suggesting that history shouldn’t involve any factual knowledge at all, of not listening to points I didn’t want to hear, and that I wished to exclude teaching students how to write essay-style blogs (even if they wanted to). It’s also been suggested that I doubtless wouldn’t approve someone’s comment (I’ve approved everybody’s comments without exception). Oh, and apparently it seems I’m a ‘moron’ – a particularly clever and witty ripost for an academic, I thought.

And reading through some of the comments one could be forgiven for thinking that I had suggested that no-one ever needed to know anything ever again as it’s all on the internet, and that children should never be expected to write a coherent passage of text.

I must say I found the reference to the Ed Hirsch Jr., Spring 2000 paper ‘You can always look it up…or Can you?‘ interesting, particularly as it appears to have become the bible of the ‘knowledge recall comes first’ disciples, while at the same time not of course taking into account the significant and substantial way in which the whole nature of the internet has developed over the past twelve years. It also perpetuates the misbelief that so-called ‘progressive’ education involves 24/7 process-based learning for everyone, and that all students are best suited to academic learning.

At one level I agree with the proposition that having access to an ever increasing amount of information does indeed probably require a greater amount of pre-knowledge, and an even more general awareness of how the world works. But my purpose was to question the sort of knowledge we need to now have at our finger-tips, and to suggest that memorising detailed facts, such as certain dates, was perhaps becoming less necessary? And the other matter I questioned was not so much what should be taught and assessed, but how it should be taught and assessed. I can’t accept that what was referred to in one of the comments, as ‘direct instruction’ is the only, or the best way for all students to learn, or that formal essay writing is the most effective way for all students to be assessed. Curiously none of the academics chose to discuss those challenges.

Well, I must say I’ve learnt a lot about academically-inclined history teachers. And I can’t say I exactly envy them all having to force-feed all those extra future reluctant  ‘I never wanted to do this subject’ non-academic Bacc teenagers with loads of dates, battles and kings and queens. It’s a tough job, but I guess someone’s got to do it.

And here’s where you can buy the T-shirt! Image credit: Redmolotov.com