On history and all that (Part 1): my deal with history

There’s been much sound and fury recently about the teaching of history in schools, prompted by the pronouncements and interventions of Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education.

Like many I really love and am fascinated by history. But, though I am an educationalist, I’m not an historian or history teacher (nor for that matter is Michael Gove) so I won’t comment on what should be in or out of the history curriculum – I’ll leave that to the experts to argue about. This is more about my own personal history of my journey into history.

I really didn’t get history when I was at school, though I did it for A-level. I loved art and english, couldn’t do music because it clashed with art, and history was the least worst option. In fact my attendance and achievement was such that Mr. Davis, the history teacher, who took great pride in the success of his students and in his teaching of the history of 19th century Europe and America, suggested strongly that it might be for the best if he did not enter me for the exam.

With pride suitably hurt, I decided to make a deal with Mr. Davis. In exchange for allowing me to take the exam, I would revise hard and ensure that I at least passed. He, somewhat reluctantly, agreed, and we shook hands on it.

As I lived in London, the next day I travelled to the centre of the city and headed for Foyles, the famous bookshop. There I purchased the past seven years of A-level history papers.

On my arrival back home, I cleared a space on my bedroom floor, laid out the A-level papers, and started to make a chart of the questions. By the time I’d finished I’d worked out that there was always a question on Bismark and German unification, always a question on Garibaldi and Italian unification, invariably a question on an aspect of the American War of Independence, the Corn Laws and so on.

I then went out and bought several of those ‘help with your revision’ books (the internet wasn’t an available option in those days) that covered the various topics I had identified as ‘favourites’. I read them carefully and made copious notes.

On the day of the History A-level examination, I sat down in the school hall along with c. 50 other boys (it was an all-boys grammar school) and at the words ‘You may start’ I turned over the paper and opened it. There were seven questions, and I’d got six direct ‘hits’…and I could just about waffle through the seventh.

When I went to school some weeks later to pick up my results, my path crossed with that of Mr. Davis. He stopped, smiled a bit weakly, and said: “It seems I underestimated you, Kleiman. The powers that be have seen fit to award you a ‘B’. Erm..congratulations!” With that he shook my hand, shook his head, and walked off.

(to be continued…)