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June 7, 2012

History ‘is boring’, says bestselling historical novelist

A man yawning on a bench as an old lady tries to interest him in a game of table tennis

A Dismal Outlook by Ehrhart

The Times asked historical novelist Philippa Gregory why British school children stop studying history the moment they have that choice.

Like one third of all British 13-year-olds, Ms. Gregory chose to stop studying history at GCSE level.   It was as if her teachers ‘sat down and said “What’s the most boring thing you can possibly study to put people off studying history forever.”‘

The history she learned was nothing more than “a list of things to get into your head.”  Apparently, there was “nothing about people, nothing you could relate to yourself or your country.”

Ms. Gregory isn’t the only novelist to think that way.  The protogonist in Anna Wilson’s Puppy Power is also bored to death of history, (and I suspect the author feels the same way, as she takes the reader away from the main storyline to tell us that.)

When I read books to my children, or watch films and TV with them, it annoys me how many of these authors hate history and proudly say so.  It’s as if they are brainwashing children to yawn at the word “history.”

But, if these authors were really taught nothing more than names and dates in school, they do have a point.  I mean, how are we supposed to “learn from the past” if all we know about it is how many people died at which battlefield in which country in which year?  (I forgot, under which ruler?)

Philippa Gregory’s latest novel opens in the year 1453 (yawn, a year), when the Ottoman empire is bringing about the end of the world by overrunning a Christian church.  Or, at least that’s the way the Christians see it.  Constantinople is apparently renamed Istanbul and the pope sends out a spy to find out why (in real life, well, geography is a bit more complicated than that.)

And here’s the gimmick to get kids interested.  A plague of frogs.  Just like in the Bible.

So, how can educators make history more interesting?

Philippa suggests more stories about food, like the one wrote for Ptara about the first vegetarian cookbook.  (I think the year might have been 1821, but apparently Morrisons magazine says 1812.)

Or, more stories about the oppression of women, like the story of Susannah Lalliment who stole a bank note and was kidnapped by pirates.

Well, Ptara doesn’t have any stories about witchcraft yet, unless you count the indirect reference in Nigel Lewis-Davidson’s commemoration of the anniversary of the Brother’s Grimm  (there weren’t many witches in the time period we concentrate on.)  But other than that, I think we do cover the human interest topics that so-called “serious historians don’t want to talk about much.”

Which will lead to a future story, one we’ve been working on for some time.  But before we get there, do you think the way history is being taught in school is boring?  If so, why?