Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Teaching History to Boys

Fred Thompson and Ross Douthat make a sensible point I've heard before, and set as a motion for a debating competition. There isn't enough teaching of military history:

"I agree with the general point of Fred Thompson's defense of teaching military history, and the old Victor Davis Hanson column that he draws on, though I share some of the caveats expressed here. The best reason to teach military history, to my mind, isn't that the Battle of Gettysburg is necessarily more important than half a dozen other topics a student might study, but that it's more interesting, offering an exciting gateway - particularly for boys, whose progress through our educational system leaves a lot to be desired these days - into a subject that can easily become dry as dust. Plenty of people, myself included, have gone on to be interested in the Missouri Compromise, the tariff controversy, and Reconstruction because they first thrilled to accounts of heroism and cowardice, genius and incompetence, at Little Round Top and Marye's Heights and Lookout Mountain. I'm willing to bet the progression rarely happens in the opposite direction."


Education is dominated by left-libertarian academics who think that history's purpose is to 'understand people' rather than tell extravagant tales about ancient massacres. This means that even study about the Second World War becomes all about the Home Front. There's room for a lot of variety in such a varied subject and the basic skills can definitely be picked up through looking at battles, generals and the like. The focus on soft, emotion centred, subjects has turned boys off history. I read military history in my childhood and it seems highly plausible it played a substantial part in leading me to more general historical study. A serious attachment to military history is something that most young men should grow out of quite healthily but the phase is an important one.

While we're at it. The two Shakespeare plays I was introduced to most frequently in my education were Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Neither has the Henry V quality that I think might appeal more to the young male juvenile mind.

I'm not in favour of lowering standards to keep children interested. However, I don't think it is really credible to argue that teaching military history or Shakespeare's histories necessarily imply a lowering of standards.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

hah. now i understand why i thought all shakespeare a snooze until i read macbeth...

El Dave. said...

I agree with the thrust of what you're saying. My GCSE English lit exam was on The Mayor of Casterbridge. I've since come to like Hardy, but at the time it was off-putting. A View from the Bridge was a great choice (particularly as I read the part of Alfieri).

Gettysburg is fascinating and it would make for one hell of a school trip, but it is important to avoid just arrows on a map. I think (and I'd say you'd agree) that some of the human element has to come through.

Matthew Sinclair said...

I do indeed agree Dave. In fact, I think it's the best way of easing people into social history rather than a way of avoiding it entirely.

El Dave. said...

My word - we agree on something.

There's a good opportunity to combine design tech, maths, physics, chemistry and history - teach all the aspects of how Archimedes used mirrors to burn a Spartan fleet.

Anonymous said...

Lol, sinclair, are you seriously claiming you once had a juvenile mind?

Ruthie said...

I think perhaps some teachers are hesitant to cover really macabre or violent events in detail because they're distasteful, especially to female teachers (at least, that's been my personal experience).

If an added emphasis on military history would engage boys more readily, I think an emphasis on context and broader patterns in history, rather than rote memorization of facts, would engage the girls.