Don’t confuse me with the facts…*

Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to remember the late 60s and early 70s were saddened last week to learn of the passing of Kevin Ayers. A founder member of the experimental and highly creative jazz rock group Soft Machine, he then went on to find greater success leading his own band, and releasing some 17 albums.

Now All Change Please! was surprised to read in all the obituaries that appeared the next day that Ayers apparently attended the Simon Langton school in Canterbury, where he met the other members of the Soft Machine. Now it so happens that All Change Please! taught at this exact same school during the 1980s, and there is clear documentation and recall evidence from staff who were there at the time that the other two other members of the band were indeed pupils there in the early 1960s. However as far as All Change Please! is aware there is nothing to suggest Ayers ever attended as well. On the cover biography notes of the first Soft Machine album, while it states that the other two were at the school, it does not name of the school that Kevin Ayers’ went to. And indeed checking Ayers’ own account he states he attended a boarding school (which Simon Langton wasn’t) and that he met the others in completely different circumstances, as confirmed in the ‘official’ Soft Machine Biography published in 2005.

But within hours of the publication of the obituary, Ayers’ Wikipedia entry had been updated to state that he attended the Simon Langton school in Canterbury (as evidenced by the Guardian Obituary), where he met the other members of the band. As such this will now doubtless pass into history as a fact, which it seems quite clearly isn’t.

So, Mr Gove, is it right to just teach our children the so-called facts, when the facts are subject to such misrepresentation and inaccuracy? The Kevin Ayers example is in itself of no great importance, but others are. Surely what really matters is that children learn that there are no such things as facts? Sources need to be carefully analysed, cross-referenced, and potentially challenged. And they also need to be taught not to believe everything, or perhaps even anything, that they read in the papers. Or, for that matter, on Wikipedia.

Meanwhile it is the proposed new History curriculum that has been widely reported in the press (diverting attention away from the even more inappropriate proposals for Design & Technology). As discussed here:

Why Too Much History is Bad History: The Proposed History Curriculum

it is clear the authors of the curriculum have a complete lack of understanding of how and when children learn.

The linear chronology only gets underway in KS2, between the ages of 7-11, when kids are expected to grasp a huge swathe of history, beginning with the Greeks and Romans (though I see no mention of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese or Indus Valley peoples), and then bomb emphatically through British history’s trajectory, from Stonehenge to the Glorious Revolution, via all the headline history that a 1950s textbook might include.

By the start of KS3, kids are 11.  When I was that age, I distinctly remember making a project book about mummification and tombs in Ancient Egypt – one which I found creative and thrilling – but our youngsters will instead hurtle headlong into Clive of India and the Age of Revolution. Soon after, they will be grappling with the US Constitution and Enlightenment philosophy…

Teachers will no doubt endeavour to enliven their lessons, but with such a curriculum they will struggle to captivate the imaginations of their young pupils, and that will be a fatal tragedy for the subject of history.

Children do need to acquire a ‘time-line’ of history, but this is just not the way to achieve it. Acquiring so-called facts in the context of a time-line is very different from learning everything only in the order in which it happened. And that’s a fact.

*According to that highly reliable source of all knowledge Wikipedia, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts. I have a closed mind already’ was said by Earl Landgrebe during the Watergate hearings in 1974.

** But according to the far more reliable source of all quotations “Quote…Unquote’, the phrase dates back to a 1945 article in an advertising periodical, and the saying appeared on a sign on a prominent Democrat’s desk in 1954.

Update 3rd March 2013. All Change Please! is pleased to be able to report that history has now been re-written, and the offending Wikipedia entry has now been more accurately updated!


One comment on “Don’t confuse me with the facts…*

  1. Today my daughter finally mummified her Barbie as part of her year 5 Egypt topic. The kids have been looking forward to it all term and I’m sure it will be a lesson that stays with them for years. I’m not sure if ancient Egyptians did mummify their Barbies or not, but that seems a minor quibble compared to a classful of kids delighted by a history lesson. What would the equivalent be for a lesson on the Glorious Revolution, I wonder? Maybe any kids from Catholic families could be made to stand in a corner while any kids from Protestant families marched past them waving orange banners? That might be equally memorable.

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