I had an interesting exchange with Robert Gordon VC, prolific Tweeter and blogger, Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, over a post he put up about students’ apparent lack of awareness of a major news story: the French intervention in Mali. I mentioned that at the start of every workshop with my third year Public History class, the students bring along and present examples of ‘history in the news’ for discussion.
Having filled a whiteboard with all the many ways in which the past is present in the present, the students have found an impressive array of material. Royal and papal stories were easily idenitifiable. But they also started to tune into the role of anniversaries, and the calls for commemoration that often accompany them (such as the Bethnal Green Tube disaster of 3rd March 1943), and to pick up on international news (such as the burning of historic manuscripts in Timbuktu) and on history in politics (Michael Gove’s curriculum reform efforts providing a particularly rich seam).
The students quickly developed a capacity to read the news like historians, rather than consuming it. They already had the skills to do so, it’s just that they weren’t necessarily being exercised. Maybe ‘historianship’ was compartmentalised in their minds, something you only access when writing an essay. Doing public history has, I hope, given them a sense that historianship can be a habitual practice, a mode of thinking that can shape how they see and interact with the world.
‘History in the news’ generates some of the liveliest discussions – maybe because in a sense the students ‘own’ that part of the class. Having three exchange students has been particularly interesting and has made us all aware of the extent to which our referents and understandings are conditioned by context (and rarely inspected). Explaining Remembrance Day, Bonfire Night or the Battle of Britain (or indeed, Australia’s Sorry Day or Martin Luther King Day in the United States) has also helped us really get at some of the key issues in the scholarly literature.
‘History in the news’ is only one way of doing it, but making that connection in public history teaching between history as a scholarly activity and history as a mode of thinking and viewing seems to me a priority. Even if students never end up working in history, they can always be thinking with it.