The way history is taught to 11-year-old Hal is very different from the way his father was taught – and will help young people to develop empathy. Hal’s father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
Living with a son who is going through a school career I often find myself trying to remember what my own experiences of learning at school were like. But though I imagine that fairly decent chunks of what I know today were learnt at school, where I draw a fairly comprehensive blank is remembering what lessons were actually like. In History for example I can remember my very first lesson – it was on the venerable Bede and the first history of England – but almost no subsequent lessons until I get to a memory of a flukily successful essay on the Reformation about nine years later.
Memories of lessons may have all but vanished, but one thing that I am sure about is that the way history is taught now is pretty different from the approach in my day. History teaching at school in the ‘60s and ‘70s wasn’t quite wall to wall dates, but it was very largely a matter of facts and I don’t remember anything much that really brought it alive. What is so different nowadays is that while you get a fair helping of facts and interpretations of events and their consequences, you also get a significant emphasis on what the events might have been like for the people living through them.
I found a vivid example of this in Hal’s history exercise book, spotted while helping him revise for summer exams. His class had been doing some work on D-Day and given basic information by their teacher on the invasion fleet, the transfer to landing craft and the extremely dangerous arrival on the beaches. Information given, the teacher asked the class to imagine that they were someone who had been on a landing craft and to write their journal. Hal came up with a terrifically evocative piece in which his character first felt sea sick in the heaving ships off the beachhead, and then terrified as the landing craft approached the beach with shells landing in the water all around making the soldier intensely fearful for his life.
I so wish history had been like that in my day – it makes it a much more valuable learning experience. It’s valuable not just because it makes it all so alive, but also because it requires you to think about what the lives of other people from other times might feel like. D-Day may not be hugely removed from our own time (though it’s not yesterday either), but apply the diary writing method to earlier times and you are steered towards contemplating how fundamentally different the things that people used to think and believe must have been at different points in history.
And there is another, enormous value, in this kind of diary piece. Because it forces you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it is also a lesson in empathy. Making an effort to see something from the other person’s point of view is, I would argue, a basic human skill. It makes you less wedded to your own view point. It makes you more broadly understanding and sympathetic. Of course I’m not arguing that writing diary pieces in History lessons has transformed Hal and his classmates into huge empathisers. They remain, in many ways, ardently self-centred. But I do think that this kind of approach involves a baby-step towards developing a capacity for empathy and that that is a great lesson for any child to learn. Hats off to modern History methods!