Magazine article History Today

Another Brick in the Wall

Magazine article History Today

Another Brick in the Wall

Article excerpt

Sean Lang has built his passion for history on several key experiences, both in terms of teaching and learning.

ON A CLEAR November night in Berlin, a week after the Wall came down in November 1989, I discovered for the first time the authentic feel of history. I had run into some young people working for what was then still the EEC at the top of the television tower in East Berlin, and when we all came down our steps seemed to take us naturally towards the Brandenburg Gate. There was still a barrier to keep you back from the gate itself and it was lit by security lighting, but otherwise the whole area was deserted, silent and very still, just the distant put-put-put of a Trabant slowly receding into the distance. There was a ghost-like feel to the Wall that night: its sinister and brutal past seemed unreal in the stillness. A world was coming to its end and we knew it. We believed -- we knew -- that the future would be very different. And indeed, two years later where we had stood was a busy thoroughfare and I went through it on a number 100 bus. But that night at the Wall stays with me, like Sir Edward Grey watching the lights going out in Whitehall. Definitely a moment of departure.

But it was one of many, for of all the advantages that history teachers enjoy over academic historians, the most important is that history forever re-invents itself in unexpected ways in the classroom. There is no better way to learn than to teach, and I have learned so much history through teaching it that I often wonder how on earth I scrabbled enough together to get a degree. I have taught about the Ottoman Turks and the Scramble for Africa, Chartists and Bolsheviks, Katharine of Aragon, Augustus Caesar, Ulrich Zwingli and Andrew Jackson. Small wonder that I hesitate when people ask -- as they always do -- `What period do you specialise in?' Mine must have been the first generation to come to history through television, and I owe a lot to the 1960s history programme Chronicle, as well as adventures like The Last of the Mohicans and The Plashing Blade. We lived down the river from Hampton Court which I loved: its grandeur is on an appealingly human scale. When I began my teaching career, as an English assistant in Versailles, I found the locals immensely proud of their chateau (and correspondingly dismissive of anyone else's) but I never detected the warmth and affection that Hampton Court still arouses.

Of course there were books. I devoured the historical adventures of Rosemary Sutcliff, Cynthia Harnett and Ronald Welch, and avidly collected all the Ladybird history books I could find: I still `see' moments of history through their illustrations. A step up from them, towards `real' history, were the books of RJ. Unstead. Unstead's great strength was the way he presented ordinary life in the past. He came in for a lot of stick when his books passed out of fashion in the 1970s, much of it desperately unfair, and he died without being able to defend himself. I was glad when I became an education lecturer to have the opportunity to write an article in Teaching History to set the record straight.

Children like their colours bright, which is why Romans, knights in armour, cavaliers and redcoats tend to go down well with them. But at A level and university I found that history was also something to argue about, sometimes with intense passion. My `home' field was the age of Pitt and Fox -- O level, A level and degree -- but at Oxford my curiosity was aroused by the Tudor period which was proving a veritable hot potato: Christopher Haigh and Jennifer Loach were busy demolishing the received wisdom on Mary Tudor and the English Reformation and people were getting very upset about it. It was a revelation to discover how history matters to people, but I discovered just how much it can matter the day I left Oxford and the IRA exploded nail bombs in two London parks. I called in on a nurse friend who had come straight from treating the victims in the operating theatre. …

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