Terry Jones: 'My plea to teachers – make history fun'

Terry Jones makes a plea for history's curriculum status to be restored and for it to be taught with conviction – and humour

Terry Jones

The following article first appeared in Tes in December 2000… 

My new novel, The Lady and the Squire, and its predecessor, The Knight and the Squire, have been special for me because they have combined two of my favourite things: history and humour and fantasy...I mean, three of my favourite things: history and humour and fantasy and writing...

I'll start again.

I remember at school getting told off for making jokes in my history essays. I had not yet learned that history is a Very Serious Subject that needs to be treated in a Very Serious Way.

Of course, it is well-known that in the past no one ever made jokes or thought that anything was funny.

Indeed, if you look at any historical painting you will notice that everybody looks terribly earnest. Apart from The Laughing Cavalier, of course, but then that is what makes The Laughing Cavalier so exceptional. I suppose the Mona Lisa might almost be in the same category, except that no one can decide whether she is smiling or simply has some dreadful medical condition.

History is not funny

No, the irrefutable fact remains that history is not funny. As everyone knows, it is a matter of getting all the dates in the right places and matching them up with the right names – or of being able to "place events and objects in chronological order" as the national curriculum puts it so interestingly.

I think it was this realisation that put me off history for many years while I was at school.

As a child, I had thought history was going to be fun and exciting. It was disappointing to discover it was simply a number of facts that had to be remembered in the right order.

I cannot believe that other children do not come to the subject bursting with the same curiosity I had. It is a subject that concerns us all, but which has been somehow stolen from us.

History, I like to think, is the tales the tribe tells while sitting around the fire at night. It is the record of jealousies and outrageousness, of cunning and ambitions, of failures and aspirations, of hatred and envy, callousness, despair, suffering and hope.

And yet I do not remember a single emotion figuring in the history I was taught at school. History ought to be how we find out about life, how we learn what makes us tick. Like fairy tales, history should allow us to draw our own conclusions. It should also be a story that we enjoy listening to.

Our story

Now I am probably being very unfair on the way history is taught nowadays. I am sure it is not at all like the poor corpse of a subject that was laid on the slab in front of me and my school chums in the 1950s.

I expect history, when it is taught, is much better now. But there's the rub. Is it being taught?

According to the national curriculum, there is no longer a statutory obligation for schools to teach history to 14 to 16 year olds. Information and communication technology is statutory. But history is not and will not be.

From August 2002, there will be a statutory requirement to teach something called citizenship to this age group. But not history.

How can you possibly give pupils "the knowledge, skills and understanding to play an effective role in society at local, national and international levels" (as citizenship prescribes) without an understanding of history?

History is our story. It is the story of us as a nation, race, or neighbourhood, a school, family or as human beings. Whatever the history we are reading there is always one common denominator. It is – or should be – something that we identify with.

How can citizenship bring children to a critical understanding of "our economy and democratic institutions and values" without an understanding of our past that goes beyond a 13 year old's understanding? Or is "a critical understanding" not what the national curriculum intends?

Controlling intellectual horizons

In the late 14th century, the Church establishment opposed the translation and the publication of theological books in the English language. The authorities were not simply opposed to the dissemination of ideas in English; they were equally opposed to the dissemination of methods of argument.

If it was dangerous to spread ideas that contradicted the tenets of the Catholic faith at the time, it was thought to be even more dangerous to put into the hands of laymen the tools of academic argument.

Armed with the ability to argue in an organised and coherent way, people would be able to counter the dogma of their betters. Ordinary men and women would be empowered to question, probe, argue back and to withstand the forces that sought to control their intellectual horizons.

I cannot help feeling it is the same with history today. History gives us the power to understand the political and social forces that have shaped our lives up to today.

By the same token, history enables us to understand how these same political and social forces will affect us for the future – to understand when we are being manipulated and why. Without history we are blanks – vacant fodder for the shopping mall.

One way to disenfranchise people of history is to make it so dull that they lose interest in it. That has certainly been successful in the past.

Adventures and betrayals

Now it seems we have – through the national curriculum – found a much more straightforward way. We have simply taken it off the agenda.

Reading through the national curriculum, I cannot escape the impression of a static view of our society. The whole emphasis is to "teach" pupils about "our democratic institutions and values", not to question these values or to give pupils the tools to try to improve or even (heaven forbid!) change them.

Do I scent the dead hand of politicians guiding the aims of the educationists?

Rather than telling teachers what they should teach, it would be more to the point to encourage teachers about how to teach it.

The curriculum could, for example, demand that teachers ensure their history is full of excitement, of passion and romance, adventures and betrayals, ideals and scheming self-interest, hopes, longings, disasters and successes.

But there is one thing above all that I would beg of our teachers of history. I plead on my bended knees that – whatever else they do – they make sure that history is fun.

Terry Jones's book The Lady and the Squire, illustrated by Michael Foreman, is published by Pavilion Books, £12.99. 

The Lady and the Squire

Tom, a village boy who has run away in search of excitement in 14th-century France, finds adventure with Emily, the Archbishop's beautiful niece, and the giant Anton, and is given a task that he cannot refuse - to help the starving people of France. But first he is destined for an uncomfortable stay in the dungeon of the Archbishop of Reims ...

Where are you?" said the voice in the dark. "Ha! Got you!" Tom suddenly felt himself grabbed and before he realised what was happening a pair of teeth sank themselves into his arm! With a gagged shriek and a super-human twist Tom managed to fling himself away across the floor. He heard the chain rattle and he knew his invisible assailant was trying to reach out for him, so he rolled a few more feet away.

"I know rat bites are dangerous," thought Tom, "but I don't suppose human bites are very good for you either!" "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" the trembly voice was whining in the darkness. "I didn't mean to do that ... It's only ... They haven't brought me food for days ... Days and days ... D'you know what it's like to be hungry? D'you know? REALLY HUNGRY?"

This extract is from The Lady and the Squire, by Terry Jones, illustrated by Michael Foreman

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