Cherish Our Hot Dates with Destiny; Traditional Method: Rote Learning of Dates Is an Integral Part of a History Education

Article excerpt

Byline: Allan Massie

LEARNING dates is bad for you. It puts you off the study of history.This is the latest wheeze from the education theorists attached to the ScottishExecutive.

Dates, it seems, don't matter. Try telling that to the survivors of 9/11, adate they will never forget.

If dates don't matter, why next year are we going to be celebrating the 250thanniversary of the birth of Robert Burns? Why do we Scots think 1314 asimportant a year as the English think 1066, the Americans 1776 and the French1789? Why - to put a more searching question - was the Treaty of Union signedin 1707, rather than in 1607 or 1807? Once you start asking that sort ofquestion, you are into serious history.

The study of history is concerned with what happened in the past, with whatpeople thought was happening and with the issues involved. It is also, ofcourse, about how people lived and worked, about their religious faith, theirpolitical ideas and the conflicts in which they engaged.

But first of all it is a story, a narrative, and it is very difficult to makeany sort of sense of history if you don't know when events took place.

To take an obvious example: you can't make sense of the Scottish Wars ofIndependence if you don't know that Edward I of England's attempt to conquerScotland was made possible by the deaths of Alexander III in 1286 and hisgranddaughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway, in 1290.

Nor can you understand why the British people mostly supported the policy ofappeasing Hitler if you don't realise that when he marched into the Rhinelandin 1936, it was not quite 18 years since the First World War ended in 1918.Memories of its horrors were still so fresh that people were eager to avoidanother war at almost any cost.

Chronology Dates are not everything and history that consisted only of dateswould be dry and lifeless indeed. Nevertheless, their knowledge is importantbecause a grasp of chronology is the essential foundation of historicalknowledge.

This is so obvious that you wouldn't think it needed to be said. But apparentlyit is necessary to make the point - for the politicians have seemingly decidedthat dates are a bad thing.

They say that rote learning of important dates is turning children off, thatcommunication skills are more impor- tant and that history lessons must be mademore enjoyable.

They are utterly wrong, as politicians usually are when they lay down the lawabout education (or indeed the administration of justice, the management of thehealth service, farming or almost anything you can think of).

Let us examine the reasons they give for wanting to do away with dates.

The first assertion: 'rote learning' is bad because it is boring. Really? In myexperience, children - small children especially - like facts. These days theycan look them up on the internet but learning them is better and moresatisfactory, and knowledge is good fun.

Moreover, good teachers make a game of learning by rendering the processcompetitive, dividing a class up into teams and giving points for correctanswers.

There are educationalists who frown on competition, but children tend not toagree with them. Most like competitions, just as they like facts.

The second assertion: communication skills are more important. Well, yes,children should indeed learn how to make an argument, whether orally or inwriting. Nobody of sense could possibly deny that schools should teach childrenhow to communicate clearly, coherently, and persuasively.

But you can communicate successfully only if you have something to communicate. …