John Child, author of Turning Points in Modern History, one of our featured taster courses from Pearson, joined us for a live webchat in October 2012. The Turning Points course is about key events of the past hundred years...not just any events - but the events which changed the course of history.
John - a grandfather of five - studied history at Cambridge University and then taught history in secondary schools, eventually becoming a head teacher. Whilst teaching history, he began to write history text books for schools; he has now written or co-written over twenty.
Q: Do you think that the rote learning of dates is still a good way of teaching history, or should lessons be concentrating on historical methods and the broad sweep of history? greatnan
A: What should the teaching of history achieve? Well, it depends what you think education is for.
If you think it is for developing the memory, then teaching the facts and having these learnt by rote is the way. If you think education is to develop the mind, then using history to teach skills, ideas and interpretations is what you'd do. What do you think?
Q: Are there really turning points or do things just slide into each other? The biggest revolution in my lifetime has been the internet but that seems to be a coming together of lots of innovations and lots of people thinking along similar lines in a sort of cycle with technological possibilities. loudmouth
Q: I would like to ask what makes a turning point? minette
A: There most certainly are turning points - but fewer than you'd think. That's what made writing Turning Points in History so fascinating.
Minette asked what a turning point is. I would suggest it is an event or time which significantly changed the direction of events. Some events (possibly including the development of the internet) speeded up events, catapulting things forward, but arguably only in the direction they were already going. That's not a turning point.
Q: I did (and still do) love the romance of history which is often stranger and better than any novel, but I had this habit of making it "real for me" which involved creating fictional characters that may or may not have "been around" in whatever period we were studying. Do you agree with this? gillybob
Q: Given that Hilary Mantel has just won the Booker for the second time, how do you account for the popularity of historical fiction? Do you think it has anything to teach us about history? Are you a fan of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies? flopsybunny
A: How topical are you!? I loved Wolf Hall and I can't wait to read Bring Up the Bodies. But...
...gillybob asks about this and I have to admit that I'm very nervous about the value of historical fiction for teaching history. It's fine to read historical fiction about a period you know well, but children find it difficult to tell fact from fiction, so it's dangerous to mix the two whilst they are still learning about an event or period.
Possibly not a popular view, but there you are.
Q: So when I am telling my grand daughter about the "child who had to go down the mine at 10 years old" or the little girl working as a scullery maid etc and she asks "what was he or she called grandma?" I should tell her that they are not real people? Surely this is not the right way to make history real for a young child and that to enjoy history they should be able to relate it to real life? gillybob
I must not argue with history teacher I must not argue with history teacher I must not argue with history teacher...
A: Fantastic! A debate!
You MUST argue with the history teacher. You MUST argue.
History is about different interpretations of the past which we must test against other interpretations to move closer to the "truth".
On the subject of real people, I may not have made myself clear. I really DO believe that it's useful to use REAL people to illustrate history. (For example, I've recently written a course on Family History - how to find out the history of our own ancestors). So, using diaries, contemporary pictures, wage books, etc etc (primary sources) to tell the history of REAL individual people is good. But for a child to read historical fiction which may or may not give an accurate picture of imagined characters from the past is a dangerous thing.
Q: What this seems to be coming down to is "what is REAL?" Hilary Mantel made a case on the radio for enhancing understanding of the facts by giving us a sense of what it felt like to be in a room at the time of Cromwell. Surely there's a case for giving us the emotional truth? (The truth after all is never definitive and I don't think anyone could fault Mantel's research - she's been working on this project most of her life). getmehrt
A: But the key things here are "enhancing understanding of the facts". You do this after gaining a basic understanding. I love historical fiction, but I love it most when it covers periods which I know well. Then it can "enhance" my knowledge and understanding OR - most importantly - I can ignore the fictional devices or fictional events or fictional interpretations which the author may include for literary or artistic reasons.
After we've all finished debating this, let's all buy the books. Hilary Mantel deserves it.
Q: Given that history is written by the victors, aren't we only ever getting a form of fiction anyway? Zorro
A: Yes, it's often the history written by the victors which survives. But this doesn't make it fiction.
All history is interpretation of the past. That makes it a view, an opinion. But that's not the same as fiction. Read lots of fiction and you're no closer to the truth. Read lots of opinions and you can decide what you think is the truth.
Q: Where were you during the 9/11 attacks? As a historian, how did you feel about it? ticktock
A: On the day of the 9/11 attacks I was at school - as a headteacher, not as a student! Our receptionist was told about it by incoming callers. At first, we didn't really understand the significance. After a while, work stopped and we all went to television screens.
How do I feel about it as a historian? Two things.
Firstly, it's fascinating history. Politics, religion, warfare, real human tragedy, role of the individual - all rolled into one. There are some heart-rending stories on the 9/11 Commission website. Anyone can look at the Commission Report.
Secondly, one-sixth of our Turning Points in History course is about 9/11. It was really interesting to consider whether 9/11 was a turning point. And, do you know what? On reflection, I think it wasn't.
Q: Why are children repeatedly taught the rise of the Nazi Party at school and so little else? My grandson has done it about three times now, including for both GCSE and A level. The Tudors are also popular but there are great swathes of history that schools no longer seem to touch. What accounts for these fashions and wouldn't it be better to give children an overview? scribblegranny
A: Good question. And there is no good answer.
I do think that the rise of the Nazi Party, the type of society which developed under Hitler and also the Holocaust should be studied by all children.
Because some only study History to the end of Year 9 (age 14) it has to be done by then. But it's a very popular subject - and GCSE syllabi are offered into an educational market place. So most exam boards and schools offer it for GCSE and A Level to ensure that they get a good take-up.
If you have a free-for all market place in education, you can't control what students choose to learn.
Q: The Greeks see the current austerity package being imposed on them as a re-run of their experiences with the Germans in WWII. Images of Angela Merkel as a Nazi etc. Do you think it's possible to have too much of a sense of history? clubber
No clubber, - great question by the way - I don't think you can have too much of a sense of history...
...any more than you can have too much of a sense of perspective.
But you can have an imperfect and shallow sense of history. That's a bad thing. And it argues for more history, not less.
Q: When does history become history? Ian42
A: Probably longer ago than is currently fashionable. I really think that we need to be far enough away from events to be able to see the wood from the trees.
The turning points I picked out start in 1914 and go all the way through to 2001. Shooting myself in the foot for a moment, 2001 is possibly too recent.
Q: At school we learnt the events leading up to the First World War. I hated it. I think that interesting history ends at the age of the industrial revolution and for me started in the Rift Valley in South Africa. Do you think children would be more interested in history if it started at the beginning with the fossil record? jeni
A: Back in the 1980's, before the National Curriculum, when I was a head of history, we devised our own history syllabus for our school and - guess what? - we began it with the fossil record from the Great Rift Valley in Africa.
Great minds think alike!
Q: I am more interested in social history than big events, rulers and battles and have tended to absorb, indeed, swallow whole, accounts of life in the past up to the 19th century. However, when I read more recent history, I find that I am constanty questioning the validity of the 'facts' because they often contradict my own experience (from 1950 onwards) and the "history" learnt from my parents and grandparents who were alive and active participants during the earlier 20th century. How do you reconcile these differing views of recent history? Granny23
A: How do I reconcile differing views of recent history? I don’t think I can reconcile them. Nor do I really want to. Views of history are just that. Views; not facts. There will always be differing views of the same events.
Take the government’s response to the 1984-5 miners’ strike for example.
•A natural attempt to keep law and order?
•Harsh oppression of workers who were victims of undeserved social hardship?
•A realistic response to the long-term decline of the coal industry?
•An opportunistic attack on a weak and divided trade union movement?
These are all valid views of what happened. Remember, explaining what happened isn’t the same as agreeing with what the government did.
Q: Do you think that towering individuals such as Churchill or Florence Nightingale changed history or were they just in the right place at the right time? MiceElf
A: To an extent, every one of us is the produce of our age; we are shaped by the times we live in. But a few of us are not just swept along by the views or our time; this few manage to make a difference – they change the course of events. Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale both fall into that category.
Q: Can we ever have an impartial recount of history? Valentine
A: No. We are unlikely to have an accurate one, let alone an impartial one.
I was once teaching a history class of 14-year olds. As an exercise in discussing evidence, I had arranged for a colleague to come into the room mid-lesson and tell me that the Headteacher wanted to see me about a disciplinary matter concerning a girl. 10 minutes after the colleague left the room, I asked the class to write down what they had seen. Even with a clear first-hand view of events, we had almost 30 different ‘histories’ of what happened. The Headteacher was angry/very angry/impatient. The colleague was apologetic/worried/amused. A girl had done something wrong. I’d been accused of something by a girl. I was needed/in trouble/about to get the sack.
That just touches on the issue of accuracy. It doesn’t even consider bias.
Q: Is history still the history of the rich, the ruling and the victorious? Has the trend to people's history and oral history projects had any real effect at all? I don't think it has. isthisallthereis
A: In academia, the importance of people's history and oral history has grown greatly. But not so much in schools. In primary schools, you see more work on "life in Victorian England" - by which they mean the everyday life of all kinds of people, not just the rich. But secondary school history has changed less. There is more social history, but high politics still dominates. But in life outside schools, we can study any kind of history we like.