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John Simkin

Interpretations in History

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Just a quick anecdotal aside:

I was teaching interpretations of Cromwell this week and wanted to have a starter activity that would engage the pupils and get them thinking about the idea of 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter'. So I posted up pictures of superman, Sadaam Hussein, Mandela, Mother Theresa and Cromwell and asked them to decide which ones were 'heroes' and which were 'villains'. Of course they all said that Mandela and Mother T were heroes and Sadaam was a villain. So I asked them to work out which of them had been described as a 'terrorist' by the American President and British PM, and they were surprised to hear it was Mandela. I then also explained that recently there had been a documentary about Mother T which had exposed the darker side to her activities in Calcutta. Then we went on to the rest of the lesson. The next day I taught the class again and as quite a few had been away the previous lesson, I used the same starter activity as a recap. However I was somewhat suprised to have a few visitors arrive at the start if the lesson (they were visiting Headteachers from schools in Ireland). Although not as surprised as they were to hear a very articulate year 8 student exclaim loudly to the class that we all know that Mother T was a villain because of the terrible things she had done in Calcutta and how she 'was holding back progress' for these underprivileged children! This was followed up by another student shouting out that she wasn't the only villain - Mandela had been making bombs and was attacking the South African government. They left with a quizzical look on their faces.

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Just a quick anecdotal aside:

I was teaching interpretations of Cromwell this week and wanted to have a starter activity that would engage the pupils and get them thinking about the idea of 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter'. So I posted up pictures of superman, Sadaam Hussein, Mandela, Mother Theresa and Cromwell and asked them to decide which ones were 'heroes' and which were 'villains'. Of course they all said that Mandela and Mother T were heroes and Sadaam was a villain. So I asked them to work out which of them had been described as a 'terrorist' by the American President and British PM, and they were surprised to hear it was Mandela. I then also explained that recently there had been a documentary about Mother T which had exposed the darker side to her activities in Calcutta. Then we went on to the rest of the lesson. The next day I taught the class again and as quite a few had been away the previous lesson, I used the same starter activity as a recap. However I was somewhat suprised to have a few visitors arrive at the start if the lesson (they were visiting Headteachers from schools in Ireland). Although not as surprised as they were to hear a very articulate year 8 student exclaim loudly to the class that we all know that Mother T was a villain because of the terrible things she had done in Calcutta and how she 'was holding back progress' for these underprivileged children! This was followed up by another student shouting out that she wasn't the only villain - Mandela had been making bombs and was attacking the South African government. They left with a quizzical look on their faces.

Great story. One way I used to teach interpretations was to discuss a recent football match that involved two teams that members of the class supported. All they all saw the same game, their interpretations of the events that took place were very different. You can then explain how ideology influences our perceptions of the past.

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Great story. One way I used to teach interpretations was to discuss a recent football match that involved two teams that members of the class supported. All they all saw the same game, their interpretations of the events that took place were very different. You can then explain how ideology influences our perceptions of the past.

Indeed, and as a case in point, painfully and hopelessly biased comments made by John about West Ham can be accessed HERE :o

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The next day I taught the class again and as quite a few had been away the previous lesson, I used the same starter activity as a recap. However I was somewhat suprised to have a few visitors arrive at the start if the lesson (they were visiting Headteachers from schools in Ireland).

Probably as well you didn't have de Valera on the board. :o

There's a nice summary of the Cromwell on the BBC 'Interpretations' dvd which might act well as a pre-plenary activity.

John's footie story (not about W Ham's brilliance) is another useful one. It's great to bring in a copy of the Pompey local paper if there's been a televised game and discuss the issues in my Southampton girls' school.

A friend of mine on PGCE placement once tried it with Socialist Worker and some right wing rag (prob D Mail, as there were plenty in the staff room). He went very quiet about it, so not sure how well it went. :eek

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Another example of interpretations concerns the use of statues. Six years ago the "Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee" commissioned a bronze cast, a life-size depiction of the suffragette striding bravely forward among placards. The committee wanted it placed on College Green, right next to the Palace of Westminster in London. The Lords Administration and Works Committee has refused permission to allow it to be erected.

Sylvia's mother Emmeline and sister Christabel already have their own statues stationed outside the Lords. However, by this time they had moved to the far right and were supporters of the British Union of Fascists. Sylvia always remained on the left and was never accepted by the establishment.

Labour MP Vera Baird has rightly pointed out that "Sylvia was the greatest democrat of all the suffragettes. The statue should stand near to the parliament she worked and suffered for. It is a disgrace that these unelected peers fail to see what pride and inspiration women would get from such a great memorial."

Baird added: "If Sylvia were alive today it is unlikely she would be offering any loans to the governing party: she would be supporting radical reforms in parliament, giving the Blair government a hard time, and shouting about the low conviction rate for violent crimes against women."

Baird is determined to win the battle of the statue. "There is no right to appeal, and the committee has turned down our request to meet with them," she says. "Perhaps it is time for women to start chaining ourselves to railings en masse".

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There is an interesting discussion taking place here about how museums “interpret” the past.

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=6492

Another example of this is to compare how different museums cover the subject of war. For example, I was surprised by the different approach taken by the museums in France and Belgium on the First World War. Much more gory than that of the Imperial War Museum in London.

The Museum of Resistance and Deportation in Toulouse is a great museum. However, its “interpretation” of this event is very controversial as it is completely honest about the lack of “resistance” and the level of collaboration that took place in Toulouse during the Second World War.

http://www.toulouse-car-hire.co.uk/pages/monuments.html

The museum at Oradour-sur-Glane is another example of an interesting “interpretation” of a past event.

http://oradoursurglane.free.fr/

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The Haig example is an interesting one, and one which leads us potentially towards a view that some "interpretations" may be more valid than others. Especially those interpretations which have their basis in sound and rigorous academic research.

It has become fashionable to believe that all interpretations are equal these days but down this path surely and inevitably lies such idiocy as schools being forced to teach Creationism along side Darwinism in Science lessons (both being seen as "valid interpretations") as we are already seeing in the wackier areas of the United States. The possible outcomes of such trends are extremely alarming.

Critical thought is not the same as the wholesale denial of science and knowledge.

In teaching school children about interpretations in history it is very important to help them understand how and why different views of the same event(s) may be formed. It would be a dereliction of duty however to encourage them to think that all interpretations are equal.

Haig is a fairly easy target as in the modern world he has few supporters. I produced one lesson where I tried to provide a positive interpretation of Stalin. I took the role of Stalin and the class had to ask me questions about decisions I had made in government. The students found my justification of Stalin very disturbing. It was a very conservative town and I fully expected one of them to report my actions to their parents or the head teacher. However, I did not receive any complaints. I considered doing a similar lesson on Hitler but I eventually decided that would be a step too far.

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I think, perhaps, there's some misunderstanding here about the meaning of "objectivity". Clearly, any teacher who walks into a classroom brings his own pre-conceptions (or even prejudices) with him. However, I do think that a teacher has an obligation to present as many different interpretations as possible, even if these run completely counter to their own views.

I was shocked when I read a contribution on another forum a few months ago in which a teacher said that he had refused to even consider presenting any "positive" aspects of imperialism in his history classes. I think this is just plain wrong. By ignoring the fact that there ARE different views of imperialism (I'm thinking of Ferguson, for example), I think this teacher was doing his students a disservice. I think it's only through presenting different views to students and then helping them to examine these critically that we can help prepare them to be critical citizens... We also teach them valuable historical skills.

For example, one of the biggest problems I have with my students is their tendency to place far too much faith in "authorities". "Mr Tribe said...." gives any statement the same authority as Holy Writ! More seriously, there's an almost fanatical belief in anything that appears in print or even on the internet... Presenting contrasting views of the same historical events/issues and helping students to examine these carefully is one way to counter this...

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I was shocked when I read a contribution on another forum a few months ago in which a teacher said that he had refused to even consider presenting any "positive" aspects of imperialism in his history classes. I think this is just plain wrong. By ignoring the fact that there ARE different views of imperialism (I'm thinking of Ferguson, for example), I think this teacher was doing his students a disservice. I think it's only through presenting different views to students and then helping them to examine these critically that we can help prepare them to be critical citizens... We also teach them valuable historical skills.

I agree. The one subject I found difficult to teach was Nazi Germany. For example, is it possible to provide a "balanced" view of this topic?

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No, but one of the best ways of being "unbalanced" is to have students analyze some nice lengthy quotes from leading Nazis! I think that was one of the reasons why Nazis: A Warning from History was such a powerful series. The makers of the program allowed ex-Nazis to condemn themselves out of their own mouths. Remember the woman who admitted that she had denounced a neighbor to the Gestapo and then went on to observe that she thought it was going to rain? Or the fat, smiling businessman who, when asked why he hadn't opposed the Nuremburg laws said that you had to understand that the Jews were really asking for it?

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No, but one of the best ways of being "unbalanced" is to have students analyze some nice lengthy quotes from leading Nazis! I think that was one of the reasons why Nazis: A Warning from History was such a powerful series. The makers of the program allowed ex-Nazis to condemn themselves out of their own mouths. Remember the woman who admitted that she had denounced a neighbor to the Gestapo and then went on to observe that she thought it was going to rain? Or the fat, smiling businessman who, when asked why he hadn't opposed the Nuremburg laws said that you had to understand that the Jews were really asking for it?

Good point. This is clearly acceptable. Would you use Nazi "anti-Jewish" propaganda in the classroom as a primary source?

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Having recently had to prepare a student for the Edexcel A2 unit on the Nazi state, I have had to re-think this one afresh. 'Nazis - a warning from History' says what it's about on the tin and represents a very different idea about History from the idea one often hears that History should always be taught with professional detachment, even when the topic is the Nazis. Were I still teaching 14 year olds I would have no compunction about showing them extracts, and underlining the moral ambiguities of the various talking heads on the video if by any chance they didn't spot them for themselves. However, I would be wary of using, say, posters for the film 'The Eternal Jew' as one of my main sources (although I am quite happy to discuss them with my tutee, who will cope with them very well.) Edexcel labelled another Nazi Unit 'The seeds of evil', although no doubt this was partly motivated by the need to demonstrate they were not focussing on Hitler for the wrong reasons.

What will be more interesting is when I manage to talk a little more to a friend of mine who is German by birth. As I understand it, three members of the German side of the family fought in the Stalingrad campaign, survived, and walked all the way home. He has told me, without a note of irony, that they were fighting communism.

I was also somewhat taken aback when he told me he came from a Junker family, a reaction that reflects on my British stereotypical thinking about Germans. To my mind this is a more serious problem because it gets talked about , and apparently considered, far less than the problem of how to teach about the Nazis. In fact it was not till a departing German ambassador criticised British teaching for focussing on the Hitler years and neglecting the Federal Republic that the matter was highlighted at all.

An example of the problem might be illustrated by a television news item a couple of years ago when a school was praised for getting children to use a flight simulator programme to re-enact the Dambusters Raid. As a flight simulation fan my first reaction was this is a good way to capture the imagination, of boys anyway. However, unless this is regarded as a 'Starter', and the main aim becomes to analyse myth and reality regarding WWll, it is just pandering to the very worst of our 'triumphalist' History.

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Reuben Moore's article in Teaching History No. 101 (2000) is still a very useful resource for getting pupils to understand the importance of interpretations, and links to the ways in which internet literacy ought to be a fundamental part of a historical education in the 21st century. It enables teachers (and pupils) to see the ways in which the internet can be used to develop an understanding of historical interpretations and provides some simple, easy to use and powerful examples. Should be required reading for the worrying number of politicians and policy makers who still go on about the importance of transmitting a 'clear and simple' list of events and people to pupils.

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Reuben Moore's article in Teaching History No. 101 (2000) is still a very useful resource for getting pupils to understand the importance of interpretations, and links to the ways in which internet literacy ought to be a fundamental part of a historical education in the 21st century. It enables teachers (and pupils) to see the ways in which the internet can be used to develop an understanding of historical interpretations and provides some simple, easy to use and powerful examples. Should be required reading for the worrying number of politicians and policy makers who still go on about the importance of transmitting a 'clear and simple' list of events and people to pupils.

Do you know if this article is online? Reuben Moore is a member of this forum. Maybe he could summarise the points in his article.

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