Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Great Disraeli Mnemonic

More than three decades ago, during Harold Wilson's Second Ministry, I used to teach something called History O-level. The so-called essays were really disguised facts tests. There were no marks for style, structure, argument or analysis. The markers (so I was reliably informed) simply put a tick in the margin for every correct and relevant fact or point and then counted up the ticks.

The course was not necessarily without educational merit, but this depended a good deal on the ways the teacher chose to spend the lessons. The most testing feature of the actual exam was the lottery on which questions would come up. However, one dead certainty for a while was Disraeli's Second Ministry (1874-1880). During these six years his government was responsible for ten major pieces of domestic legislation, and the candidate who could remember all ten was well on the way to achieving a pass. After a little experimentation I found that the Acts could be arranged in the following order:

  • Artisans' Dwelling Act
  • Rivers Pollution Act
  • Sale of Food and Drugs Act
  • Employers and Workmen Act
  • Factory Act
  • Agricultural Enclosures Act
  • Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act
  • Education Act
  • Public Health Act
  • Merchant Shipping Act

Read down the initial letters of this list and you will see at once why no pupil could possibly forget the Arse-Face Prime Minister. As far as I can remember no pupil of mine ever failed O-level during the "Happy Time" when Disraeli held a preeminent place in the syllabus. My old Head of Department refused to spend two years on this mind-numbing memorisation; in what was in theory the first year of the O-level course we did some of the sorts of things that came in to GCSE courses later on.

It is still, quite rightly, impossible to do well in History examinations without memorising a fair amount of information - rather a lot of information, as a matter of fact. Everyone has their own methods of learning by heart, but a good mnemonic is as good as anything. The army (where rote learning can be a matter of life and death) I think uses mnemonics. At least, from my days in the CCF during Harold Wilson's First Ministry, I can still remember how to give a fire order: GRIT ("Group, Range, Indication, Type of fire).

My Disraeli mnemonic is the only one of mine worth preserving. I am happy to offer it as a gift to the hard-pressed candidates of 2013 and beyond. However, since part of the point of these blogs is to advertise my lectures published on Amazon Kindle I must tell you that Disraeli's part in producing the Second Parliamentary Reform Act of 1867 is summarised (along with much else) in my lectures on "The Development of Democracy in Britain":


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