Friday, 6 April 2012

08:03 – Names and dates. I was reading something the other night that was sneering at teaching history as “names and dates”. Over the last few decades, it’s become the prevailing opinion that such teaching of names and dates is useless. Perhaps that’s why few people who are younger than 50 or 60 years old know anything about history.

I learned history the old way, starting by memorizing hundreds and eventually thousands of, yes, names and dates. Even now, I remember most of those. Superficially, it may seem useless knowledge for me to remember, say, that Gaius Marius (157 to 86 BCE) served as consul seven times and reformed the legions or that Octavian (63 BCE to 14 CE) won the Battle of Actium in September 31 BCE or that Charles “The Hammer” Martel lived from 686 to 741 CE and won the Battle of Tours in the autumn of 732 CE or that Queen Victoria lived from 1819 to 1901. And, considered in isolation, those are indeed useless factoids.

But only when considered in isolation, and only when there are just a few of those factoids. When there are hundreds and thousands of them, they assume critical importance. They provide the framework for understanding history. Ironically, new-style history teachers condemn old-style history teachers for teaching “isolated names and dates” rather than teaching the relationships of people and events. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Ask a student who learned new-style history about a particular period. They may understand a famous event in some detail, but if you ask them what was going on elsewhere in the world at about the same time that influenced that event, they’ll have no clue. Conversely, ask someone who learned old-style history about the same event. They’ll be able to “connect the dots”. They’ll know what was happening elsewhere at about the same time, and who was involved. The new-style student sees history as a collection of unrelated events; the old-style student sees history as a tapestry.