Playing the past?

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.

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