students

Should we teach ‘difficult’ history in schools?

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One twenty-two-year-old (Instagram ‘influencer’ Freddie Bentley, pictured above) recently caused consternation by suggesting topics such as climate change and Brexit should be taught in schools rather than the history of the Second World War. It followed comments by contestants on the reality show The Apprentice that revealed that they weren’t sure of the dates of the conflict. Not surprisingly Bentley drew down a wave of criticism (much of it from tabloid newspapers and their readers) for suggesting current events were more important than historical ones.

Naturally, as a historian, I would argue that history is important, and should be taught in schools but surely children ought to learn about current affairs as well? Of course, there is a debate to be had about what history (who’s history perhaps) is taught and what lessons are drawn from it, and how it is taught.

Bentley commented that learning about the horrors of the world war and the deaths of millions of people had been traumatising and he worried for children’s mental health.

That shouldn’t mean it isn’t taught.

Future generations need to understand the sacrifices made by previous ones and they need to understand how something like the Holocaust could come about. Teaching should always be age appropriate, but we can’t completely shield our children from the tragedies of the past. Human history is shot through with inhumanity and the next generation is entitled to know about it.

However, I am a little suspicious of the reaction to Bentley’s Good Morning Britain interview. It seems as if those commentators have been quick to say that history is important whilst at the very same time ignoring or misrepresenting history when it suits them.

Surely one of the lessons of the second world war is that we should have a closer relationship between European nations to avoid future wars? Surely the lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is that singling out people on account of their religion, race, sexuality or disability leads to state sponsored murder and is abhorrent?

Surely the lesson we might draw from the war in the Pacific is that nuclear weapons are disproportionally destructive and should be banned?  Indeed, we also might learn that warfare is abhorrent and so all arms manufacture should be tightly restricted at least, and perhaps even prohibited?

None of these suits the agendas of the politicians that most tabloid editors give their support to however. These lessons from history are simply ignored or reinterpreted to suit a narrow world view that allows race hate, unbridled arms dealing, nationalism, and economic inequality, to persist.

Moreover, the real challenge to our children’s future – the climate emergency – is side lined and relegated to a discussion of the rights of people to protest. Climate change is the single most important issue for our society and I think Bentley was probably right to say that it should be taught in schools. Not at the expense of learning about WW2,, however, but as well as.

The reality is that Climate Change is terrifying, and we risk traumatizing our children just as much as learning about Belsen and Auschwitz does. But since the general public doesn’t seem to have woken up to the dangers of the climate emergency, and the tabloids and most politicians don’t seem to be doing a very good job of educating us on it, the only hope we have is for our schools to inculcate a concern for the planet at an early age.

History is vital to a rounded education but if we don’t look – and look urgently – to the future no one will be around to learn the lessons that history teaches us anyway.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities

Putting Undergraduates on Trial (this time with feelings)

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For several years now I’ve been putting undergraduates on trial. Before you get excited I only mean as an exercise in understanding the criminal trial in the past, I don’t lock them up or send them to Botany Bay!

Each year I set an assessment which involves groups of 2nd year History and Criminology students at the University of Northampton working together to recreate a trial from among the thousands available via the Old Bailey Online website. Students have to think about how the transcript they are provided with by the site should be adapted to work in a 15-20 minute presentation and are then asked to reflect on what they have learned (about the crime, the process and the wider justice system of the 1700s or 1800s). Finally each of them will submit a short written essay which explores the context of their chosen case in more detail.*

The presentation element has always taken place outside of the classroom. At Northampton this usually involved taking the UGs to the university’s Moot Room on Park campus where the police and law students practised in a room set up rather like a modern family court. Since we moved this summer to the new Waterside campus I’ve lost this resource and was wondering whether I might be able to utilise a more appropriate venue instead.

With the help of Jane Bunce and her team at Northampton we secured the use of the Sessions House, one of England’s most authentic surviving courtrooms. Sessions House has two courts, one for civil cases and the other for criminal ones. The courts are situated within the Northamptonshire County Council offices in town and comprise courts, eighteenth and nineteenth century prison buildings and extant cells below.

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On Thursday last I took my current second years into town where we were given a tour of the premises by Alan Clarke, a local historian and expert on Sessions House and his architectural significance. He showed us where the last public hanging took place, explained the layout of the two courts (including the wagging tongue above the criminal court) and the students explored the graffiti in the dingy cells underground.

Then we recreated a trial from the Old Bailey archives.

The case I chose was that of Robert Campbell, Antis Horsford and Henry Stroud  for the murder of Daniel Clarke in April 1771. The case was well known in the late eighteenth century and arise out of the ongoing disputes between the silk weavers of Spitalfields (in London’s East End) and their masters. As weavers took direct action to defend their livelihoods (which involved cutting silk out of looms and intimidating those who worked silk under the price the collective had set for it) the state imposed heavy penalties on offenders.

Weavers were arrested, put on trial, condemned and executed, mostly as a result of informers being pressured or bribed to give evidence. The community closed ranks and one commentator described Spitalfields and Bethnal Green as having been ‘rendered almost ungovernable’. Daniel Clarke had been ‘an evidence’ against William Eastman and William Horsford, two weavers that had been executed in early 1770 for their part in the troubles. Now, in April 1771 Clarke was to face the consequences of his actions.

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported what happened on a wintry day in the East End:

‘Yesterday, between four and five o’clock a mob assembled in a field bear Bethnal Green, consisting of upwards of two thousand, when they sat upon one Clark, a Pattern Drawer, who was the principal evidence against the two Cutters that were executed at BG some time since;  they continued pelting him with their brickbats, & for three hours, which laid his skull entirely open. Never did any poor mortal suffer more than he did; he begged of them several times to shoot him; but they kept stoning him till he died in the greatest agonies’.

It took the authorities several  weeks to take anybody into custody. Once again the magistrates met a wall of silence which was only broken when two men decided to take up the offer of a large reward and give the authorities some names.

As a result Antis Horsford (the widow of the executed William), Robert Campbell (a weaver down on his luck and trying to escape to America), and a gardener named Henry Stroud (who was married to the sister of the man hanged with Horsford, William Eastman) were put on trial in July 1771.

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In our version the students took on the roles of prosecution and defence barristers, witnesses, judge and jury. It took us about two hours to read though the case. In reality the trial lasted ‘from nine in the morning till eight at night, after which the court adjourned to dine’ (as the Gentleman’s Magazine tells us). They found Antis Horsford and Bob Campbell not guilty and recommended Stroud to mercy as they felt the community was responsible for Clarke’s death, no one individual.

In reality Antis was acquitted but the men were convicted and ‘turned off’ in public close to the scene of the crime near Brick Lane a couple of days afterwards.  The weaver’s dispute ground to a halt after that and the government acted to protect the industry from foreign competition. It was too little, to late, silk weaving in Spitalfields was in terminal decline; although it staggered on into the next century, weavers remained poor and got poorer.

The state had needed scapegoats for the wilful destruction of property and the communal murder of its agent of ‘justice’ (Clarke). I suspect all three were innocent to some degree, and Stroud even helped drag Clarke from the pond where the ‘mob’ were stoning him to death. I gave this story to my mother a few years ago, as fodder for her creative writing course. This year she has published her version of events (entitled ‘Rough Justice’) which pictures a happier future for Henry Stroud.

I find that the process of thinking through a case like this by acting it out helps us understand what is going on. Some of the language is strange but speaking it aloud helps it became intelligible. The courtroom is a strange and symbolic place, not easily recreated in our heads or in a sterile classroom. If you stand in the dock or the witness box, or address a court from the judge’s seat you can feel the difference (as Tim Hitchcock so effectively explained last year in Liverpool at the launch of the Digital Panopticon).

This year (or rather next, in early 2019) my students will – for the very first time – perform their own Old Bailey reconstructions in an eighteenth-century courtroom. Sessions House will come alive again as the voices of the Old Bailey Proceedings are given oxygen by the breath of Northampton undergraduates. I will sit in the judges’ chair and ‘judge’ how effective they are.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead in History, University of Northampton

*my 2016 textbook has an online section which details this exercise and others that might be of use to students and tutors. You can find that here

 

Top Tips for New University Students: From a Soon to be Second Year History Student

University is hard, and it’s hard to know how to prepare for it. To help, here are my top tips for new students. I made these tips from lessons I learnt from my first-year experience.

1. Know how much money you have.

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I know this sounds simple but it is very important. Before coming to university, I would advise every student to have a conversation with their parents or guardians about how much money the student has with their maintenance loan and whether their parents can give support financially on top of that.

Remember, every student’s situation is different.

Also, make sure you remember to do your student finance at the end of each year, you don’t want to get to 2nd year and have no money: Student Finance England

 

2. Use social media

Before I came to university, I joined the University’s Fresher’s Page: University of Northampton New Students. This meant I could ask questions to staff members easily and also meant I found other people doing a history degree.

We created a Facebook group chat of every history student we found so we could get to know each other a bit.

Social media can also be used to get to know the history department, such as following lectures on Twitter or by reading posts on this history blog. Here is a link to the Fresher’s group for this year University of Northampton Freshers Facebook Page

 

3. Write lists

If you’re moving to go to university and are living in halls, lists are essential when packing. Before I moved, I walked around my parents’ kitchen writing down any utensils that I thought might be useful.

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Even if you’re staying at home while you’re studying, make a list of stationary you might need, documents you need to print out for enrollment and what you need to do before classes start.

Asking parents or friends to help with this can make it less daunting, and means they can suggest items which you may not have thought of.

 

4. Get involved in Welcome Week

Welcome week is your first week at university after enrollment, and you’ll be given a welcome week timetable for history students. Welcome Week includes activities where you can meet other people on the course and the lecturers.

You will also be visited by students in other year groups and those from the History Society.

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Welcome Week is also when university led activities such as Fresher’s Fest and the society fair are held. Welcome week really helps you get used to university and makes classes less scary, so I would definitely make the most of it. Here’s what was on offer in my year: Guide to Welcome Week

 

5. Classes themselves

TV and movies paint a picture of university which is confusing, and I had no idea what classes were going to be like. This isn’t really a top tip, but a clarification.

Seminars are like A Level classes, there is work set which has to be done before the class and it is a group discussion.

Lectures are much more formal, as it is where lecturers teach you the content for the seminar the following week. It’s in lectures that notes are important.

Our university is moving towards more blended types of learning where the distinction between lectures and seminars are less obvious, but there will always be times to listen and times to interact.

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Note taking can differ from module to module, depending on the style of a lecturer’s presentation, the assessment type or how comfortable you are on the topic. You will find how you best make notes with, but the History Society will be holding events to help students with this throughout the year.

 

6. Weird Feelings

Stressed student holding books, anxious, anticipation of finals

To finish up this blog post, I’m going to list some of the stages and feelings I’ve had during my first year. This means that you know that if you have them, they’re normal:

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Am I ready for this? This was the week before university, when I was wondering if I was ready to move out or if I was ready to have adult responsibilities like buying toilet paper.
Where am I? Who is this? What is this? Campus is huge and it feels different to how it does on open days. Luckily, there’s a map on the Northampton app if you need it. This year, we’ll all be lost as it’s a new campus so don’t worry.
This feels like a school trip. I genuinely thought that university felt like a school residential trip for about 2 months. There’s no real explanation for this, it’s just kind of an odd feeling.
Wait I’m going home again? I had this when I went home for the Christmas break, when I had to adjust to human sleeping hours and not having the library on my doorstep. The first holiday at home is the hardest, and your relationship will change with your family if you live away from home. (Don’t worry though, it happens to everyone).
Okay I think I’m getting the hang of this. This is when you feel like you know the way to class, you know how to write an essay and you know how to adult. Everything is good.
I can’t… I just can’t deal with exams. They come around quicker than you think, and I made the mistaken of not having good notes. Revise little and often, get help from your lectures and please remember to turn up to them.
Now what? First year finishes after exams (unless you do resits) so you now have 4 months to kill. Have fun with it!

Good luck to all new university students and if you’re coming to study history at Northampton, see you in the next academic year.

Emma Tyler, BA Hons History Student, University of Northampton

Second-year History students visit Imperial War Museum

One feature of the History degree at Northampton is a recurring opportunity to engage with optional field trips.

HIS2014 students at the Imperial War Museum, 15 February 2018

Students posing in front of historical military hardware at the Imperial War Museum!

Last Thursday sixteen second-year students took a break from their normal classes to visit the Imperial War Museum.  Most were studying the optional module HIS2014 First World War and they were accompanied by their lecturer, Dr Jim Beach.  Exploring the recently-upgraded First World War galleries they encountered a multitude of items relevant to the module’s content.  The artefacts helped to reinforce their previous learning and some displays offered fresh insights.  Elbowing younger competitors aside, the students were also able to rediscover their inner child by trying on helmets and uniforms!

This field trip is now in its fourth-year and, as is now customary, everyone adjourned afterwards to a nearby pub to reflect upon the afternoon’s meandering.  And, in a similar vein to previous years, the discussion also turned into an initial planning conference for the History Society trip to Vienna at the end of the students’ third year.  That trip also includes First World War galleries but, being in an Austrian military museum, they tell the story of the conflict from a very different perspective.

 

Dr Jim Beach