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?

2 thoughts on “History ‘is boring’, says bestselling historical novelist”

  1. I love reading an article that can make people think.

    Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!

  2. Well … OK … I confess! I thought History was boring when I was a student in senior high school! … I retired in 2000 after over 30 years as a Secondary Education Teacher teaching “History” ! In senior high school when it came to homework, other subjects took precedent and when I went to class I usually sat at the back of the classroom listening to the few faithful students who had read their history assignments and were able to discuss them with the teacher, hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on me to answer any questions about the assignment and hoping the bell would hurry up and ring, ending the class period. To make it short, while assigned to overseas duty to Germany during the Korean War I during furloughs I skied in Switzerland and traveled to Italy and Rome (saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Coliseum, and dined at fine-food restaurants, resided at a hotel overlooking the Isle of Capri!), Paris (attended Opera for the first time: Faust, Carmen, etc.), Madrid (walked the streets and attended a major bullfight in a crowded stadium, gasped at toreadors daring, and all!) and particularly visited the great Cathedrals while in Rome, Italy, and Paris. France. When accepted by Columbia University under the veterans Bill of Rights, for the first time I became interested in “history” after attending an European history class taught by an enthusiastic teacher or professor, who ad lib-ed from his lecture notes with personal comments and recitation of various other historical references – reciting passages from memory (with no notes) and seemed to relish telling the story of history and its ramifications! Postgraduate courses at the University of Berkeley, particularly attending one teacher education course that placed a group of elementary children on a small stage and through some “thinking through questions” theory of teaching, convincingly demonstrated how elementary school children could be taught to recite college level physics principles (unknowingly of course, by them!) – and as part of a live student teaching visitation, attending an urban, innercity Oakland, California, where an African-American female teacher, teaching Spanish, managed during a classroom period to reach most of the students in the classroom, including myself, and prompted us to speak and answer her “in Spanish” interactively! I never forgot that experience! I was amazed and very impressed with this very personal approach … she practically coaxed (I think that’s the word), through repeated small questions, the answers from the reluctant (obvious ghetto-looking and ghetto-talking black students, barely able to naturally speak standard English) and myself! This teacher, raised from a poor, urban, innercity neighborhood, herself – working as a waitress while obtaining her college degree and teaching credentials, appointed a “Master” teacher for student teachers by the University, became my idol, my teacher mentor, when I became teaching back in Columbus, Ohio, at an Ohio Department of Youth Services teenage penal institution for teenagers continuing their public school education while incarcerated or locked up for breaking some Ohio law. I taught or insisted upon them learning more than rote “names, dates, historical periods, and dates of battles and wars, and utilized visual aides such as PBS Video series documentary videos on the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and other textbook chapter-related films obtained from the public libraries. History can be made interesting according to how it is taught and by whom it is taught, and whether that teacher is inspired by history and personally interested in teaching history herself or himself!

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