People like us

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Dinah Starkey short- lists personalities who might illustrate the dynamics of the 20th-century

"There is no history: only biography" wrote the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841, and he was right. History is all about people's lives, and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's suggestion of studying the 20th century through the story of John Lennon is a good way of making the period accessible to children. He was chosen, as the preamble to the key stage 2 study unit explains, because he made a significant impact on popular culture and because his life portrays some of the key changes in the recent history of Britain. It suggests that the unit ("What can we learn about recent history from studying the life of a famous person?") could be adapted to focus on someone else.

So who would be a good candidate? It all depends on what you're trying to do. Ask children to name a famous historical character and they will almost certainly come up with someone male, white and dead. So the aim might be to challenge this stereotype by offering an alternative model.

Does it have to be somebody British? Since QCA offers this unit of work as part of a study of Britain since the 1930s it must, at any rate, be someone who influenced British history. That doesn't necessarily limit the choice to British citizens, but it does narrow the field a bit. Out go Martin Luther King and Mohammed Ali, Shirley Temple and Mother Teresa - all people whose lives illuminate, in one way or another, the sweep of events in the 20th century.

There are other factors to consider, too. Historical significance is certainly one. The character should be somebody who has made a difference.

But the achievements of a heavyweight - Margaret Thatcher, for example - may not necessarily mean much to children, so relevance is a definite plus when deciding who to study. And so is the recognition factor, because it helps if children are studying someone they've already heard of.

There are lot of things to think about, and it is difficult to find someone who satisfies all the criteria. But this list of suggestions, with its scoring system, should provide some ideas to start you off.

Benjamin Zephaniah

Recognition value ***

Impact on world affairs*

Usefulness as a role model ****

Best known as a poet, Zephaniah was born in Birmingham of a Jamaican mother. He spent much of his childhood scribbling poetry but because of his dyslexia he did badly at school and was eventually expelled.

He got into trouble with the police, did some time in a young offenders'

institution and went to prison for a crime he didn't commit. But Zephaniah turned himself around. He decided he had to channel his energies and began to educate himself. He was looking for an inner meaning to his life and he became a Rastafarian.

His first poetry collection was published in 1980 and he began to be involved in performance poetry. There has always been a strong political element to his poetry and he has campaigned against poverty, homelessness, and racial prejudice. His collections include two books written for children: Talking Turkey (1994) and Funky Chickens (1996). He has also written two novels for teenagers, Face (1999), which was short-listed for the Children's Book Award in 2000, and Refugee Boy (2001). His most recent book, We are Britain!, celebrates the cultural diversity of this country.

Bob Geldof

Familiarity ***

Impact on world affairs**

Usefulness as a role model ***

Bob Geldof was born in Dublin and became the leader of the Boomtown Rats, a new wave Irish band of the 1970s and 1980s. Their biggest hit, in 1979, was the single "I Don't Like Mondays".

In 1984, the BBC journalist, Michael Buerk, began reporting on a disastrous famine in Ethiopia. His reports, showing stark images of millions of people starving to death, shocked Geldof, who decided he must do something about it. He and another singer, Midge Ure, wrote a song called "Do They Know It's Christmas" to raise money for famine victims.

Geldof then persuaded 40 other pop musicians (including Sting, Bono and Paul McCartney) to join him in recording the song under the name Band Aid.

It was a huge success, raising pound;8 million. As a follow-up, Geldof set his sights on organising a mammoth charity concert. Known as Live Aid, there were two performances, one in London and one in Philadelphia, held simultaneously on July 13, 1985. 70,000 people packed Wembley stadium for the English event and the concert raised about pound;40,000, of which half was applied to immediate relief and the rest put into a fund for long-term development.

Geldof was nominated for the Nobel peace prize and received a knighthood from the Queen. But, despite everything that had been done, more than a million people starved to death in the famine of 1984; 20 years later the situation in Ethiopia was even worse. Geldof was increasingly convinced that a more radical solution was needed. He became an advocate of cancelling Third World debt and used the G8 summit to put pressure on the world's leaders to cancel African debt and increase aid to the continent.

Live 8, with concerts in 10 cities around the world, was held on July 2 this year.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Familiarity *

Impact on world affairs****

Usefulness as a role model **

Although Gandhi was not a British citizen, his life had a profound impact on 20th century Britain because of the key role he played in India's struggle for independence.

His emphasis on peaceful protest made possible the transition from empire to Commonwealth and from the Commonwealth sprang the multicultural Britain that we know today. He was born a high-caste Hindu and studied law in London before moving to South Africa, were he championed the rights of Indian immigrants and began to explore ways of applying moral pressure to overturn injustice through passive resistance.

Gandhi returned to India in 1915 and became involved in the struggle for independence from Britain. He would not countenance violence and, when fighting broke out, whether between the Indians and the British, or Muslims and Hindus, he fasted until peace was restored.

He had an eye for a symbolic gesture. In 1930 he ordered his followers to withhold taxes, including that on salt, as part of a campaign of civil disobedience. To underline the protest he led a 400km march from his ashram to the sea shore, where he deliberately broke the law by making salt.

In 1947, India gained its independence. Gandhi had argued for a unified nation but the former colony was partitioned along religious lines to become India and Pakistan; rioting soon broke out in Calcutta. Once again he embarked on a fast to bring peace, but the divisions were bitter and he was close to death before a reconciliation was achieved. A few weeks later, Gandhi was assassinated as he walked through gardens in New Delhi on his way to evening prayers.

Virginia McKenna

Familiarity *

Impact on world affairs****

Usefulness as a role model ***

Virginia McKenna was born in 1930 and trained as an actress. She was successful both on stage and film but was in no way involved in politics until, in 1966, she starred in a film which changed her life.

The film was Born Free and it told the true story of Elsa, an orphaned lion cub raised in captivity and later released into the wild. Born Free did much to change public attitudes about keeping animals in captivity. It had a profound effect on McKenna herself and she became a campaigner for animal rights with a mission to keep wildlife in the wild.

In 1969, she made another film, An Elephant Called Slowly. The star of the film was later shipped to England and became a major attraction at London Zoo but it failed to thrive in the cramped conditions of the zoo, and died prematurely.

This led McKenna and her husband to set up Zoo Check, an organisation that looked out for the welfare of animals in captivity. Zoo Check campaigned for a ban on keeping some animals in captivity, including polar bears, dolphins and whales, and for tighter controls on the use of animals in circuses. The organisation, which evolved to become the Born Free Foundation, continues to influence public opinion and work for animal rights.

John Lennon

John Lennon and the Beatles are used in the history schemes of work to teach about social change. The Fab Four can help 10 and 11 year olds learn about Britain's transformation from the starched and rationed 1950s to the unbridled, flower-power 1960s.

Today, with so much manufactured pop, it is hard to imagine their enormous influence on music and society.

Lennon was born in Liverpool in 1940, when "the Nasties were still booming us", as he wrote in his first book of weird word and picture sketches, In his Own Write. He met co-song-writer Paul McCartney in 1957, and their first single, "Love Me Do", came out in 1962. The anger and edge in Lennon's songs, both with the Beatles and after their break-up in 1970, came from a tough childhood. He was killed by an obsessive fan in New York in 1980.

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