Sunday, December 12, 2021

"The past is a foreign country"

Dominic Sandbrook in "Make History Great Again!" certainly understands what got a young me interested in history:
.... History isn’t about you; that’s what makes it history. It’s about somebody else, living in an entirely different moral and intellectual world. It’s a drama in which you’re not present, reminding you of your own tiny, humble place in the cosmic order. It’s not relevant. That’s why it’s so important.

So how should we write history for children? The answer strikes me as blindingly obvious. As a youngster I was riveted by stories of knights and castles, gods and pirates. What got me turning the pages wasn’t the promise of an ‘uncomfortable’ conversation. It was the prospect of a good story. ....

A great story, then. And a great setting. All children are fascinated by alien worlds, from the planets of Star Wars to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Why should Cleopatra’s Alexandria, with its melting pot of languages and religions, its temples and theatres, its lighthouse and library, be any less intoxicating? ....

There’s also the characters. That’s what history’s really about, don’t you think? Not issues, but people. The great names: Thomas More in the Tower, Edith Cavell facing the firing squad, T.E. Lawrence riding across the desert. And the not-so-great names: a gladiator making his debut at the Colosseum, a Polish schoolgirl in the Warsaw uprising, a boy sailor at the Battle of Jutland. And yes, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King too. But not just them. The heroes of previous generations were heroes for a reason. There’s not a child alive who wouldn’t be thrilled by the story of Nelson or Napoleon. Why deny them the pleasure?

Finally, the most important thing of all. Not a place, time or character, but an attitude. ‘The past is a foreign country,’ L.P. Hartley famously wrote at the beginning of his great novel The Go-Between, ‘they do things differently there.’ Exploring that vast, impossibly rich country ought to be one of the most exciting intellectual adventures in any boy or girl’s lifetime — not an exercise in self-righteous mortification. Put simply, it should be fun. This is why children fall in love with history. Not because it’s relevant, or improving, or even instructive. And certainly not because it fosters grievance and victimhood. Not because it’s ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘necessary’. But because it’s fun. ....
Dominic Sandbrook, "Make History Great Again! And stop teaching children to be mortified by the past"

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