The people's century
Can you sum up the 20th century? John Tusa canvasses the views of prominent people and finds some stimulating answers, says John D Clare
This pack draws its material from interviews done by John Tusa for the BBC Radio 4 series 2020: A View of the Century. These have been excellently adapted for educational purposes by Alasdair Brown, a further education head of department teaching A-level and Access humanities courses.
Here is a pack which understands how people learn and - perhaps more importantly - how teachers teach. Although it is designed for students on A-level, Access, adult or prisoner education courses, its topics could form the basis of any adultyoung adult discussion group, including bible studies or political education workshops. It is not just another series of radio programmes churned out on cassette.
Indeed, at the core of the pack is not a cassette, but a booklet. It is split into eight themed units, which address topics such as "men and women", "faith and doubt" and "mass communications". For each topic, the booklet offers four pages of (photocopiable) printed extracts from different interviews. Students are recommended to begin the topic by studying these quotes.
I found just reading the extracts exciting. They quote some of the most prominent people of our century - for example, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (anti-apartheid campaigner), Francis Crick (discoverer of the structure of DNA) and Oleg Gordievsky (former head of the KGB in Britain) - as they think out loud about the past 100 years. The booklet takes their best ideas and presents them as a series of aphorisms - particularly delightful, for example, was Desmond Tutu's dry comment on Western cultural individualism: "Your being such splendid, analytical people, who chop up things . . . It makes you very good scientists, but then you don't always seem to be able to put things together again."
The result is intellectually stimulating. The quotes are a stream of "light-bulb" statements which provoke new insights. Often, creativity comes when you transfer and apply concepts from one situation to another - try doing this with areas of your life (as I did) and you start getting all sorts of ideas.
Even if the quotes don't immediately stimulate responses from your students, the booklet has a section of "critical thinking" questions for each topic, designed to allow students to analyse and consider the presented ideas. Many of these are fascinating discussion topics in themselves - for instance: "Is love a changing concept which can mean different things at different stages of history?" The booklet also suggests research activities which are realistic and achievable, and writing exercises to be done at the end of each topic. The result is a booklet which, even without the tapes, is a most impressive study package.
So are the tapes superfluous? The pack makes it clear that they are not. In a sound-bite world, we are used to having ideas neatly packaged and given to us in bite-sized pieces - that is what the original radio programmes did (and what the gobbets in the booklet do). But, as John Tusa says in his foreword, this approach denies the listener the opportunity to hear remarkable people developing their ideas in an extended way.
It also prevents them forming an opinion about the speaker as a personality as well as a thinker. Students need to learn to listen for longer periods, so the pack asks them to listen and make notes (which also helps to prepare them for university lectures).
For John Tusa, the 20th century is "our incredible century"; he is aware of its disasters, but believes that we too easily neglect its triumphs. A final, ninth unit moves beyond the specific topics, and allows students to reflect on the century as a whole, asking themselves the same question as was put to the contributors at the end of each interview: "What do you think has been the greatest achievement and the greatest failure of the 20th century?" What are we to make of "our century"? The interviewees give their ideas. Oxford professor Theodore Zeldin calls it "a century of great dreams and great disappointments"; "Like an airline that's never had a crash," suggests Professor Lawrence Freedman; "We don't have muscles but we have motors. And our brains are plugged in to computer nets," offers film-maker Herbert Girardet; "A beer-commercial life," says Professor Dean MacCannell; "Glimmers of a feeling that we are the guests of this small asteroid," claims the novelist and critic George Steiner.
And if any of that got you thinking, then this an education study pack for you.
John D Clare is head of history at Greenfield Comprehensive School in County Durham