Monday, 27 January 2014

Democracy defined for the 1914 moral high ground debate

Several politicians and historians are just now clambering around the treacherous slopes of First World War historiography in an attempt to reach the moral high ground represented by the slogan “More Democratic!” Some of them, however, seem to have omitted to take with them any map. At least, they are certainly not providing any map for their readers or hearers.

Time to escape from this over-extended metaphor. The point is that without a decent definition of democracy the effort to prove who had most of it is a waste of space. So, here goes.

Introduction: There can be no perfect democracy. Perhaps such a state would be undesirable; perhaps not. That is a different debate. One should envisage rather a sliding scale, so that a state might be said to have become more democratic, or be less democratic than its neighbour. But things are really more complex than that, for it is often necessary to judge that this state is less democratic in this way, but more democratic in that. There are several elements involved in democracy, not just one. Here is a quick list.

  1. Percentage of the population who can vote. That is the obvious one. It is important for sure; the more voters, the more democratic. But it is not the only test.
  2. The extent to which the bodies elected have power. If the elected local council is powerless in the face of the local noble family, or the local big business, then democracy is limited, even if everyone can vote for the council. The same applies, of course, at national level. Can elected bodies over-rule unelected ones? What is the relationship between the elected bodies and the executive bodies, and so on. in 1914 hereditary monarchs and aristocracies had a fair amount of power. Perhaps today it is multi-nationals that can limit democracy.
  3. Do the voters have a genuine choice? If the parties for which they might vote are banned, or more subtly hampered, then democracy is limited. if parties cannot succeed unless they are backed by the very rich, then democracy is limited.
  4. Are the voting mechanisms conducive to democracy? Every AS Politics candidate can list the advantages and disadvantages of different electoral systems. There is no guaranteed right way, but some are more democratic than others.
  5. Are the systems for voting and for counting the votes fool-proof? There is a wonderful description of a nineteenth century count in di Lampedusa's "The Leopard". More recently the pregnant chads of the Bush/Gore contest caused democracy to stumble.
  6. Do the governments accept that they must not use their power as governments (which has to be huge, for reasons of national security) to influence elections? Is there a robust legal framework to ensure this?
  7. Will the losers in any election accept the result or will they either rise in rebellion or stage a coup?
  8. Is there a free press so that the issues to be decided by elections can be widely understood and debated?
  9. Are there various freedoms and rights guaranteed by law so that winners in an election, or referendum, cannot tyrannise over the losers?
  10. Is there sufficient education so that the mass of the population can have access to the free press. (In these days of audio-visual media this point has declined in importance. In the nineteenth century it was crucial).
  11. Are attitudes in society democratic or deferential?

Readers may be able to add other points to the list. Those with any knowledge of Europe in 1914 will be able to think of examples to fit into this list. I will just mention the Prussian three-class franchise, and the House of Lords. My own opinion is that, on balance, Britain was more democratic than Germany in 1914, but I only have the general knowledge of a school-teacher, not the expertise of an academic.

Incidentally this list is not in order of importance. Possibly in the world today items 5 and 6 are the most important. In order to judge the extent to which a state is democratic all elements need to be considered.

I have written about democracy at much greater length. If anyone is interested my Kindle piece is called “The Development of Democracy in Britain 1850-1918” It currently costs about one pound in the UK and similar prices elsewhere.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

But why did the First World War begin?

The First World War is going to be all over the news for the next five years at least. I imagine that thousands of children are going to be asking how it started. What I have tried to do in this blog-post is provide an honest and reasonably accurate explanation of how the War started in a way that will be accessible to interested children of, say, nine to twelve years of age. I like to think that it will be useful to many parents and primary school teachers, especially at a time when an awful lot of myths are flying around.

It is, of course, a simplification of a very complex topic, but I do not think it is simplified to the point of inaccuracy. I shall be very pleased to hear comments. And I shall be pleased if teachers use it as a basis, and make what changes they think are needed.

I have written a much longer piece about the causes of the First World War, but that is only available if you pay for it on Kindle.

I have decided not to say how Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Turkey, Italy, the USA and many other countries became involved, except for one general sentence. Apologies for that; but that would have made this post too long for my purpose.

* * * * *

The First World War began in 1914. It was a really dreadful event. Millions of people were killed and millions more were wounded so badly that they never recovered. At the same time four of the powerful countries that had got involved in the war – the Russian Empire, the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and the Turkish Empire – were completely wrecked by the war and by the revolutions that it caused. Ever since the war started people have been asking “How on earth could governments have been so stupid and wicked as to let this happen?” The problem becomes even more complicated when you study the history and discover that most of the people who took the decisions that caused the War were not very stupid, nor very wicked. But I am going to try and explain why the First World War started. Here goes.

A hundred years ago an awful lot of Europeans did have an idea that we can now see was pretty stupid and wicked: they thought that they were somehow cleverer and better than everyone else in the world. Some European countries were very strong and rich, and they had built up big Empires all over the world. The Germans ruled over parts of Africa. So did the French, who also ruled over parts of Asia. The Russians had recently conquered the countries to their south and east and made them into a Russian Empire. The British had the biggest Empire of all, ruling over parts of every continent except Antarctica. The Italians ruled over Libya and the Belgians ruled over the Congo.

Some Europeans did their best to use these Empires to help make the world into a better place by building schools and roads and hospitals. But most were either greedy, and trying to make money out of them, or were bossy and liked having power over other people. There are some dreadful true stories about the cruelty and nastiness of all these Empires.

The First World War was not caused directly by quarrels about these empires, but this imperialism, as it is called, caused all European governments to think that using force to make your country stronger and richer was all right.

A second problem a hundred years ago that helped to cause the war was that adventure stories of all sorts created the idea that war and fighting were brave and noble and heroic. People forgot that War is about cruelty and misery and squalor and terror. Individual soldiers may often be heroic and noble, but war in general means death and destruction and horror. There is an important lesson here. There is nothing wrong with enjoying adventure stories about King Arthur and the Round Table, or the Robin Hood, or Hornblower, or whoever it happens to be. But remember that real life is not the same as stories. In 1914 far too many people all over Europe thought that the War would be fun, daring, and an adventure during which they could show off their courage. They should have known better; the recent American Civil War ought to have shown everybody how utterly dreadful war is.

A third problem in 1914 was that modern improvements in science, technology and industry had made it possible for rich and powerful countries to have bigger and better armies and navies than ever before. The Russian army was becoming bigger and more efficient all the time. The German Army was probably the best in the world, of terrifying size and power. Germany had a big modern navy too, but nothing like the enormous British navy. With all these dangerous armies and navies in Europe people naturally became very nervous about how they were going to be used. By 1914 the most powerful countries in Europe had organised themselves into two groups, for support. The Russians, British and French were very nervous about what the Germans and Austrians might be planning. The Germans and Austrians were very worried about what the British, Russians and French might be planning. All the countries made detailed plans for what they would do if there was a war.

The final and most difficult problem was that two great countries were on the point of collapsing. Way back in history the Turks had become rulers of several European countries (modern Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Romania among others). Way back in history the Austrians had become rulers of several European countries (Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia among others). As 1914 approached the Turkish Empire in Europe had already started to fall apart and the Austria knew that their Empire was soon going to do the same. This made all the governments of Europe very nervous and jumpy. What would happen next? Who would get which bits of land? Who would get stronger and who would get weaker? When people are frightened they do not always take sensible decisions. In 1914 governments were frightened, and they took the foolish, easy decision to go to war rather than the difficult decision to keep working for peace. (It was an “easy decision” because of the second problem I explained above. Going to war was popular.)

The problems I have explained so far seem to me to do away with any notion that one side in the War was much more wicked and stupid than any other in 1914. However, 1914 was when the actual decisions were made, and some governments made worse decisions than others. We can go through them step by step.

In the summer of 1914 this was the situation. The Austrian government was afraid of its empire collapsing. The French and Russian governments were afraid of the mighty German army. The German government was afraid of the growing Russian army and of the mighty British navy. The German government also knew that the French hated them because of a different war fifty years earlier, when Germany had won and had taken some French territory. The British were afraid of the growing German navy. Meanwhile newspapers talked about war as though it was all a matter of honour and glory and national pride.

Then, in midsummer, a gang of terrorists who called themselves The Black Hand murdered the heir to the throne of Austria. It was fairly certain that the Serbian government knew about this plot, even though it may not have had much to do with it officially. Naturally the Austrians were outraged, and so was the German Emperor. The murdered man – and his wife had been murdered too – had been a friend of his. The German government at once promised to support Austria.

The Austrians, knowing they had German support gave the Serbian government a set of very severe demands (called an ultimatum). When the Serbian government delayed and refused to give way to all of them, the Austrians declared war and invaded Serbia.

The Russian government was very worried abut this. They had traditionally been friends with Serbia and, if they did nothing, they would look very weak and feeble. So the Russian army began to get itself ready for war (which is called “mobilising”). They knew that their army would take longer than the others to get ready, so they thought they had better get started, just in case.

The German government saw that the Russians were mobilising, so they decided they had to mobilise too. Otherwise the Russians would be ready to fight and the Germans would not. War is not like a football match, where you wait for the referee’s whistle; the side that is not ready at the start is going to do badly. So the German government quickly ordered their army to mobilise.

At this point historians argue about why the next thing happened. Some say that the German government wanted a war anyway, believing they could win quickly. Others say that it was just bad luck (or rather, bad planning) that the German mobilisation plans, designed to be as fast as possible, had no delay built in to them. They swept straight from getting mobilised to invading France, Russia’s ally. Germany had already declared war on Russia. Anyhow, that is what happened. Suddenly France found itself invaded, and Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary and France were all at war.

The British government were not sure what to do. Many members of the government were strongly against joining the war; others were in favour of joining in. They already had some general agreements (not absolute promises) to support the French. They were afraid that a quick German victory would make Germany much too powerful. But then the German plans for winning quickly caused the German armies to attack Belgium as well, on their way to France.

As far as Britain was concerned this swept away all doubts. There was a definite promise to defend Belgium. Belgium seemed like a completely innocent little country attacked for purely selfish reasons. Many of the politicians who were in doubt became firm supporters of going to war. The newspapers and the public called for war. The government was bound to join in to support France and Belgium.

So the war began. Russian soldiers thought they were fighting to protect Serbia and France from invasion. German soldiers thought they were defending their country against planned invasions by Russia, France and Britain. French and Belgian soldiers knew that their countries had been invaded. British soldiers were sure that they were fighting to drive the German armies out of France and Belgium. Everyone thought that God was on their side.

Soon lots of other countries joined in, either to support their friends or because they thought they would gain some advantage from being on the winning side. The dreadful First World War was under way.

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Content of a Secondary School History Course Part 2: Pre-exam Years

In Part One of this blog I examined some of the problems that face anyone who is trying to devise a History curriculum. In particular I argued that the number of topics that can be included is a good deal less than is usually imagined. Most of us (teachers, academics and politicians) who enjoy discussing the subject had an aptitude for History at school and could take in a lot more than the average pupil. We have to be careful not to set up a curriculum that would have been fine for us, but which would lead to far too many pupils finding the subject dull, and giving it up in droves at the first opportunity.

In this post I am going to describe what I did, in terms of content, with my pre-exam years when I was Head of History. There is no intention at all of saying what other people should do. There are all sorts of constraints that apply differently in different schools. My hope is that my example may provoke some useful reaction, either of the “I like that; I’ll try it” sort, or of the “That’s dreadful; I must avoid that” sort.

My own situation was as follows. For one thing, I was at a school in Edinburgh. This freed me from the National Curriculum (an English arrangement). For another I naturally wanted to include plenty of Scottish History, but without neglecting the mainstream of UK History. In the third place I was very lucky to have three pre-exam years, not two. We began with Primary 7 (aged 10-11). During these three years the time allocated to me was three 40 minute lessons per week, with two short preps. Finally, it was an independent school. We were not very selective in terms of ability, but there was, of course, a considerable financial commitment to the idea that education was worthwhile. Also, I had enormous freedom, provided my bosses could be persuaded I was doing a good job. I look back and realise I was very lucky in the Heads and Deputy Heads I worked under.

[Let’s not get into debate about the rights and wrongs of these arrangements for the moment. These were matters of whole-school policy. Also, and this is a matter for another post, I had a list of eight “Strands” (skills, more or less) pinned up on the wall of the departmental room, and reminded colleagues frequently that it was just as important to develop and deliver these as it was to instill knowledge of any particular topic. However, back to Content.]

Some time in the 1980s the mandarins of Scottish education produced something called the 5-14 Scheme. I was in the happy position of being able to pick and choose the best bits. The HMIs in those days (no Ofsted in Scotland) had wide experience of good practice in schools and used this to put together a guide to good practice. That was where I got the “Strands” from (though I added two of my own: Extended Reading and Extended Writing, which found favour with the Inspectors when they called). As far as Content was concerned I found their advice excellent.

In each of the pre-exam years children should do something local, something Scottish, something British something European and something beyond Europe.

In Primary 7 we did the Middle Ages. Our course included: David I and the founding of Edinburgh; the peoples of Scotland before 1000AD; the Wars of Independence; The Norman Conquest; The Anglo-Saxons (and remember that Edinburgh was for a long time in the Angle Kingdom of Northumbria); the Vikings; Henry II and Becket; Monasteries; Castles; Burghs; the Crusades. It was very much up to individual teachers to choose which topics to develop, which topics to whizz through, how to handle the occasional project, piece of extended writing, document exercise or whatever. I used to spend a lot of time on David I, whose reign (as Scottish historians will know) incorporates most of the topics on the list. I will say a bit more about the Crusades, incidentally, in Part 4 of this blog, which deals with the Hidden Curriculum). We had a great day out in St Andrews’ looking at the Castle and the Cathedral.

In Secondary 1 we did the Long Sixteenth Century. Once upon a time, when we had four lessons a week, we carried the story up to 1660; but there is no point wallowing in myths of a Golden Age. I chose this century partly because there are so many really good stories for the many children of that age who love stories. I also chose it because it gave opportunities for such a variety of types of history – political, military, diplomatic, social, cultural and intellectual. We had a day out exploring the Old Town of Edinburgh.

So. We did: The Old Town of Edinburgh; James IV; Mary Queen of Scots; Elizabethan England; the Renaissance; the Reformation; the Spanish Armada; the Voyages of Discovery. Each of these is, of course, capable of unlimited development. Again I gave my colleagues a good deal of freedom. Personally I spent a long time on the Renaissance and James IV, tackled MQS through controlled research exercises and project work and tried to get them thinking about the impact of the Voyages of Discovery on the world beyond Europe. Incidentally, I found one can never take for granted what children will find interesting. One year I had a class that was gripped by the Reformation. One year only, out of 37, did I find a class that had no interest in my reading to them the story of Mary’s execution, as told by Garret Mattingley. Teachers have to be ready to learn and adapt as they go along.

Secondary 2 was the last year of compulsory History and the first year where most of the pupils were ready to tackle topics with a bit more depth and sophistication and moral ambiguity, and not be given nightmares by the unspeakable violence and cruelty that is found in every period of history. I was desperate to cover some of the things that I thought they ought to know about but the list was, of course, far too long to be accommodated. In the end I settled for three separate units, one per term.

In the Autumn term we did Scotland from the Covenanters to the 1830s. I was sure that every young person growing up in Scotland ought to know something about the Covenanters, the Jacobites, the Treaty of Union, the New Town of Edinburgh, the Scottish Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution. In practice one so often got bogged down in the Jacobite story that other things got short shrift. But one kept trying. Text books were a real problem. Every time I found one that was good enough it promptly went out of print. So in the end I sat down for a week in the school’s Highland Field Centre and dashed off an in-house text-book. After a pilot year it was refined with illustrations and served us fine. I am still quietly proud of my simplified diagram of a Boulton and Watt Steam Engine, drawn from memory.

 In the second term we tackled the First World War. Enough said. We were lucky enough to be able to combine this with a trip to the Ypres Salient, leaving by coach on Thursday evening and returning, sadder and wiser, on Tuesday. We went during the slack weekend after the school rugby season had wound down – February/March – and the bleak weather detracted nothing from the visit. The trip was absolutely outstanding, and I can say this because we did not run it. We placed ourselves in the hands of Des Brogan and Mercat Tours International, and all the pupils, and every member of staff we took (always at least one non-historian) were bowled over by the quality of the experience.

And finally… What on earth to so in the last summer term before half of them say goodbye to the department? We experimented with various twentieth century topics but in the end settled on “Aspects of American History 1918-1980”. This allowed us to look at Boom and Bust; the New Deal; Pearl Harbour and the Japanese War; Civil Rights; and Vietnam. You will appreciate how these topics allowed the pupils to develop their ideas about politics, economics, propaganda, diplomacy, warfare and human rights. You can’t include everything.

We also added, in this final term, a scheme which worked well enough for us to stick with it for a decade. This was to use one of the two preps each week for a news diary. We chose five stories that had to be followed week by week. If there was an election, that was in, of course. Other topics came and went, but the list of five always included China, and Environmental Issues.

So, there you are. If you approach this list looking for great topics that have been left out, you will find dozens. But I still think our pupils had a pretty interesting and worthwhile time in our department.

As a little footnote I will mention two after-school activities. On Tuesday I ran the Junior History Club. What we did depended on who joined that term. Sometimes we did jigsaws of castles, sometimes we looked at videos about Romans. Sometimes we went out of the gates and looked at urban history. On a Thursday I ran the Second World War Activity. This followed a three year cycle (for pupils were juniors for three years). In Year 1 I went through the War chronologically. In Year 2 I dealt with it thematically (army, navy, code-breaking, air and so on) and in Year 3 we watched war-films dove-tailed with discussion or video documentary about how accurate, or not, they were. Some pupils chose to come back for all three years. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Content of a Secondary School History Course: Part 1 – Problems

There has always been discussion about what bits of the past ought to be taught in schools: Ancient or modern? National or international? Political or social? Local or general? Marxist or Whig? And so on. At the moment these discussions have gained a new intensity from the pronouncements of Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, on the subject. In Scotland, where I used to teach, his writ does not run, and so we look on his pronouncements, and the opposition to them, with mild amusement. Nevertheless, the discussion is interesting; so I thought I would add my pennyworth. There will be four posts in turn: 1 - Problems; 2 - Juniors 3 - Exam years 4 - Hidden Curriculum

I first devised a History syllabus in 1972, as part of my PGCE Course. For the last quarter of a century before I retired in 2010 I was lucky enough to be Head of History in an independent school, with almost complete freedom to make up whatever history course I liked. My responsibilities began with Primary 7 (10-11 yrs old) and ended with Secondary 6 (17-18). That is the experience upon which I can draw. Note that this series of blog-posts will be about content only. Skills and so on are another matter (though those who are interested can look at my earlier post about the point of studying history)

[Pedant watch. I tend to say “History” when I mean a timetabled subject and “history” when I mean the study of the past. It doesn’t always work, and I am not always consistent.]

So, here goes. Problems.

Simon Schama, on a recent “Start the Week” discussion, correctly emphasised the lack of time available, especially during those pre-exam years when History is compulsory. He was absolutely right. Whenever I was pestered to include more American History, more Scottish History, more Ancient History, more Social History, more Cultural History  and so on I would show my list of what we did do and ask: “What would you like me to leave out?” The problem becomes more serious if the course includes – as it should – exercises to develop skills of all sorts. Every exercise based on primary sources, every project, every Internet Research Exercise, every piece of extended writing and so on reduced the amount of content one could hope to get through.

My own greatest regret in this area came when a re-jigging of the timetable (no doubt for excellent educational reasons, though I was not convinced) led to a reduction in the allocated time for History, with the result that the War of the Three Kingdoms and the Industrial Revolution had to go. Or, at least, a lot had to go and those two massive and wonderful topics suffered.

An oft-quoted problem is lack of resources, especially lack of resources to change the content in any substantial way. I have been pretty dismissive of this in my time; part of the joy of being a History teacher is that one does not have to teach the same stuff year after year but can choose new options and refresh one’s curriculum all the time. What fun to use libraries and the internet, and to teach one’s pupils to do the same. But I taught in a great city, with three universities, a magnificent public library service and dozens of charity shops, at least four of which were dedicated to nothing but books. I also had an independent school’s departmental budget which was not huge but was several orders of magnitude greater than what was available to my friends in the state sector. I still do not see lack of resources as a major problem, but sympathise with those who are less lucky than I was.

However, what I regard as the biggest problem was raised tangentially on the same “Start the Week” programme when Tom Holland revealed that he had read Herodotus with pleasure at the age of twelve. I suspect that all the panellists had shared this precocious reading level, or something similar. I was a bit behind this standard but still read a lot of good history for pleasure before I was fifteen. What it is difficult for academics and politicians who have not taught in schools to remember is that their experience as young learners was almost certainly not typical. Most pupils will not read a historical novel over the weekend. Most will never read Herodotus for pleasure while at school. A few will, of course, and they end up being groomed for entry to the elite universities. But it takes the average Lower Sixth type a whole lesson to read one “History Today” article. The pace at which pupils can work varies enormously and the pace of the syllabus has to be set so that almost all can keep up, with educational profit. (It is not at all difficult to find worthwhile extra things for the scholars to do).

I used to carry out an exercise with my P7 and S1 pupil where I would read them a piece of undeniably interesting history in one lesson – with all the skills at reading aloud I could muster. Then we would have a test on the following day. Some would get all right. Some would get most right. A few (and not necessarily the least intelligent, however that elusive quality is measured) would get nothing at all. I also used to find that very few of my good A-level Historians could remember much of the history they had studied in pre-exam years. That surprised me, because I can still remember most of my history from school; but, as one wise old colleague said to me when I was beginning: “Ah yes, George. But you are one of the few who went on to become a History teacher”

Another good exercise was to give them a written exercise that involved using the contents and index and pictures and page-references in the open text-book. Some pupils would finish in ten minutes; some would never finish at all. One worked to help pupils develop these skills; but the arrived at the lessons with a wide, wide range of aptitudes. One had to bear in mind the pace at which the slower workers could cope when devising a whole-school syllabus. There was, I repeat, no shortage of extra stimulation and reading for the speed-merchants.

I would say that this need to go at what seems to an adult to be a snail’s pace is one of the biggest problems. The solutions would be either to concentrate solely on learning a single narrative, or to cover all topics in a very superficial way (or do both); in which case the cures would be worse than the disease.

The next two posts will explain my own efforts to make a decent syllabus despite these problems, and you can judge whether or not there is anything in my experience from which you can learn – if only in the way that the Duke of Wellington claimed to have learned from serving under the (Grand Old) Duke of York: “The best training a young officer could have. One learned exactly what not to do.”