So my fifteen year old brother asked me to help with his history homework about a week or two ago, and I’ve been mulling all this over in my head ever since.
He came home from school, sat in front of the TV, got out his worksheets and started making a timeline of events on the Rebecca Riots. He’d been given all the information in the form of a booklet, about fifteen pages long, detailing all the back story and actual events that took place in West Wales in the 19th century. It was all right there in front of him. He had to read and make notes.
After about ten minutes, and what appeared to be three over-turned pages, he gave up, complaining to me that there weren’t enough actual dates and events to make up his timeline. He asked for my help, and my history brain leapt into action; Yes! Finally a chance to flex my amateur historian muscles!
I looked at the work he’d done so far- four boxes of a double sided A4 sheet, filled with boxes. Four dates, with explanations that all said pretty much the same thing; a crowd gathered at X, the gates were attacked and destroyed. After roughly thirty seconds of quickly scanning the sheet, I realised that he must have done the same, but in less time and without actually looking at anything that wasn’t a numerical date. I found at least five bits of pretty vital information that he hadn’t, and asked why he hadn’t included them. Why he hadn’t looked at any of the following pages, why nothing was included on the context? I mean, surely at GCSE level, despite the fact that, from my own recollections, you can pretty much get away with historical murder, they must have wanted some kind of explanation. But the answer I got was very simple;
“I don’t need to know context, I don’t need to know what happened, or why it happened, I just need to make a timeline of dates.”
There I was, mentally planning my own study notes for the written piece that was going to be his coursework: a timeline of events, an extra A4 sheet with a multi coloured spider diagram of all the reasons and societal preconditions to the riots, their aftermath, the key figures, the places, the reactions, responses. And then it was all cut down, very simply and effectively, by;
“We don’t need to know why it happened. And I don’t want to read it all.”
I felt as though I should light a candle. Is history dead? Let’s just forget about the fact that, yes, this was homework, and what fifteen year old wouldn’t rather be upstairs in his room gaming or watching TV, not reading about cross-dressing Welsh rebels dead a hundred plus years before. Maybe it wouldn’t have affected me as much, had it not immediately forced me to remember a debate I’d had with myself a month previously.
I was taken back to a place I had tried in vain to wipe from my memory; revising for this year’s compulsory module, The Practice of History. In one of the rare things I chose to retain from those few days of almost hell, I remembered reading Robert Rosenstone and his views on the Historical Film, and using movies as historical documents and sources. He talked about the ways ‘history’ is communicated to current generations in this heavily media-defined age. How a film about historical events- whether historically accurate or not- should not be dismissed for being as such, but rather should be considered as simply adding to the language that history can speak to stay relevant. I was convinced, and even more so now, because what was most important about his argument was just one critical term. A term I’d never really heard used with any significance before, a term that has rung in my head ever since; Post-Literate. Education has ultimately become a baseline. A whole generation of people who can read, but won’t. They choose not to. And why should they? Anyone with a smartphone or a computer (which is, yano, everyone), and a basic understanding of the internet can access google or wikipedia in a matter of seconds, and find themselves enough of an overview of a topic to grasp it. Who needs to trawl through a musty old book in some deep dark corner of a library with lights that turn on and off sporadically like an irritatingly cliche horror movie? What I began to realise, in a slightly demotivating fashion, was that this was something that had been rearing its head again and again for a few years now; I’m studying history at a time when more and more people like to tell me that they don’t care about history. They don’t see the point.
But then, I really couldn’t remember if things had always been like this; Had I been that way too, at age fifteen? So unconcerned with context, or asking why what had happened, happened? Had it only been through the trials and tribulations of A Level and Undergrad level History that had made me look behind these surface events to the wider circumstances? To look beyond the figures and dates and battles and wars imprinted on all of our memories, to look at the society from which they came? Was I just rambling on and on, my geek pride wounded and shocked to the very core to find that, gasp, people don’t really care about history? Tentatively I’d say no. Even before I was fifteen, I’ve always loved writing history essays, but that’s somewhat shamefully beside the point…
As I’m typing this, I’m still trying to work it all out for myself. Have I myself fallen into the “kids these days” trap of judging those who haven’t committed to the pursuit of people and worlds that are ultimately lost, by the standard of people like me who have? The way I’ve come to view the world is so defined by the past- how things seem to pattern out and cycle- I can’t help but see how so incredibly relevant history is. I love knowing why things happened; how economic changes, social developments, and family feuds meant that ‘witches’ were murdered in Salem in 1692, why the British thought it was a good idea to colonise America, and why Americans eventually fought for their independence, why German and Soviet troops on the Eastern Front in World War II became so utterly desensitised to brutal killings and atrocities. Hell, I’m committing ten thousand words of my undergraduate dissertation to the latter.
But in the end, I know I can’t be too cocky. Even by my own standards, I sometimes fall into a total reluctance to read anything in print. While writing this, I can totally appreciate that some might take a quick glance and immediately invoke TL;DR. I’d be the first to put my hand up and say that I’ve lazed about on the sofa watching Jeremy Kyle or Supernanny while a small pile of books I know I should be reading sit and cry in the corner, steadily collecting dust. Knowledge is a hard thing to gain in these post-literate times; With ‘entertainment’ at your fingertips, how cruel to deny it a place in your heart and life.
Read a book? Nahhh, I think I’ll just sit here and have a little look at what’s happening on the internet/flick through two hundred photos from an acquaintance’s holiday album on Facebook/load up Fallout 3 and blast off some raiders’ faces/ watch the four hours of Jersey Shore that I’ve stock piled on Sky+for just this sort of occasion.
Procrastination isn’t a new thing. It probably started with bored cave men finding the best shade of paint that would preserve their art on cave walls, rather than bother to go out with the hunting party that day. But what scared me was to think that we are all losing something. I own a Kindle, but I still daydream about dedicating a room in my future house to shelf upon shelf of books. But anyone born now, into the world of the Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Tablet, E-Reader, or any such device, let alone the internet and an array of search engines just sitting there a mouse click or voice command away…what possible reason would they have for coming into contact with a book?
I’m not a technophobe, and I own enough unjustifiable gadgets to prove it. But in this one instance everything kind of became real, and I feel like we’re entering into that time, and we’re watching the last few generations straddle the fence between the old world and the new; willing to see the future, while increasingly reluctantly looking back at the old.
And I think, honestly, I’m a little bit sad about it.