Playing the past?

December 21, 2007

The Guardian reports on the Lincolnsfields Centre, a residential site where visiting schoolchildren learn what it was like to be evacuees during the Second World War by ‘experiencing’ it for themselves. They seem to get the whole war in a week, from evacuation to VE Day. I’m not quite sure how I feel about such experiential learning. At one level, the Centre is obviously run by good people, who want to make history accessible and (despite the tone of the report) to help those with Special Needs or who are socially disadvantaged. And I would be the last to complain at children being fascinated by history, particularly since the numbers of kids choosing history at GCSE level goes down year by year. Still, I get nervous at how people are being taught to think about the past.

The teacher quoted at the end of the Guardian report says: ‘It was everything we hoped for and more. The children haven’t stopped talking about it, and it gave them a fantastic insight into the war years. It enabled them to empathise with the children living through it.’ I can’t help thinking that ’empathise’ is the wrong word here, and that this makes more than a semantic difference. It helped the children ‘imagine’ what it might have been like to be an evacuee, but if they are taught that just by wearing some clothes that feel strange, going somewhere different and eating some odd food you get an insight into the mental world of the 1930s or 1940s, to really ’empathise’, then someone is making an error. It’s a very fine line to walk: I know from experience that you can get a better sense, for example, of how well the British Army’s personal equipment was designed in 1914 by trying it on and comparing it to the Boer War version. But do students get a better sense of how it felt to be a soldier by putting on a uniform for twenty minutes? Probably not: they get a sense of what it feels like to be a young person in the twenty-first century wearing some unfamiliar clothing.

Still, if the Lincolnsfields Centre had its petition online, I’d sign up, because unless we get children interested in history somehow, they’ll never get to a point where we can start to make them question what, and how, they’ve learned.

Update: In some ways, this relates to the issue of imaginative involvement, as discussed from a different perspective by George Simmers here and here.


I’m back!

December 18, 2007

It is very much to my embarassment that this is the first post in over three months. Yes, I am well aware that the web is full of blogs the principal content of which are posts lamenting ‘I really must write here more often…’, but allow me to explain. For me, the purpose of the blog has always been to encourage and improve work, not to create it. It’s a place to share ideas and spark creativity. Over the last few months, I’ve often found myself either doing the sort of administrative work that doesn’t need to be shared with anybody, or writing to deadlines in a way that precludes discussion. I’ve also been fortunate enough to spend some time abroad – including a trip to Australia, of which you can read an account here and here. And this alerted me to the fact that quite a few people read trenchfever. Strangely, far from encouraging me to write more, this blocked me for two reasons. First, I felt a responsibility to produce quality. Second, I became conscious as I went over deadlines that the blog is also a measure of my activity. What would those editors to whom I owed chapters think of my excuses if they could see perfectly well that I was producing the goods here?

Anyway, the chapters are finished, the term is done, and I’m about to start a year’s sabbatical in which I’m concentrating on my Second World War book. So the blog should resume its role as thoughtpad and discussion site.

There are a couple of things I want to talk about over the next few days, including publishers using the ‘net, my experience of doing a podcast for Timewatch and my plans for next year, but for now, some sites to share on the web.

My Queen Mary colleagues put their Borromei Bank research project on the web. It’s a remarkable medieval history resource – an entire set of banking records allowing the reconstruction of a trans-European economy – and exactly what the net was meant for. Here’s the explanation of why it matters so much. Here are the records themselves.

James Holland’s research site and blog detailing his work on the Second World War. An example of an independent historian using the web to create his own archive.

The Imperial War Museum’s brief online exhibition of its work recording memories of Greenham Common, which might be quite a useful resource for post 45 British history.