I have a story that answers two questions: why I love history, and why I love educational visits for students.
In the story, I am five years old. I am wearing the muddy green jumper that was my first primary school’s uniform, and the colour matches (at least in my mind) the polo shirts of staff there that day. The place is Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex.
I have been there just once in my life, but my memory of that day is so vivid that I am certain I could return now, more than 30 years later, and find the precise spot where I dropped the pencil. To explain, Fishbourne is the largest Roman residential building so far discovered in Britain and the floor is still largely decorated with the original mosaics installed by its long-dead imperial owners.
Obviously, these mosaics are so delicate and treasured that few people are allowed to walk on them, but the staff were. And I remember absolutely clearly believing that, given my similar uniform, if I dropped my pencil from one of the bridges that allow visitors to view the mosaics, I would be able to go down and retrieve it.
And I could walk where the Romans walked.
Because that was the point. The tiles on the floor were pretty, but what I found extraordinary then – and still do now – is that those precise tiles were walked on by people who knew nothing of aeroplanes or America, computers or carbon taxing, but knew all about legions and Latin. To touch that which our forebears had touched – that physicality is the embodiment of the magic of history to me.
I get that from my dad. All through my childhood, he would say, “Think who saw this ... touched this ... walked this floor,” whenever we went to any historical site. We once somehow wangled a special tour at the Palace of Versailles, where the guide took us through the secret passages through which Marie Antoinette had run on the night the Paris mob came for her and her children. Being secret and hidden, they’re not much to look at, but there my family all stood, wide-eyed and mouthing to each other, “They were right here.”
It carries on today: I treasure a picture I took just last year of my dad and my brother looking out from the top of one of the many monuments on a US Civil War battlefield. You can see they’re thinking, “It happened here.”
I recently had a chance to pass on some of that feeling to a new generation whilst visiting Washington DC with a group of extraordinary young people under the auspices of the Transformation Trust. The project in which we were involved, Unite US 2018, was only one of the ways in which the trust seeks to engage and support around 80,000 young people every year, all from disadvantaged communities. Other initiatives include working with all manner of different corporates to build specific employability programmes for children from tough backgrounds.
This particular project required teams of young people from schools with high pupil premium receipts to build a campaign for some important change in their community. The winners – whose work, for example, included addressing anti-social behaviour in their town, or trying to expand the representation of young, ethnic minority women in politics – won a chance to visit Washington DC and meet politicians, campaigners and activists to help them enhance their campaigning savvy. I was asked to join the trip to provide some historical context, as not all of the students had studied US history or politics before.
And so I found myself, dressed in a T-shirt bearing the Declaration of Independence, teaching the US constitution in front of a pristine, wall-length blackboard, in a Georgetown University classroom, before getting a picture of myself in front of Abraham Lincoln’s vast memorial statute down by the Potomac River. A number of friends and colleagues, who saw my pictures on Twitter, took the time to tell me they’d never seen me smile so much.
But the best moment of that day was when one of the students asked me what else that place was famous for. “I’ll show you,” I said, and I pointed them towards the flagstone on which is carved “I Have A Dream – Martin Luther King Jr”. “That was here?” they asked. And I could say yes, right at that spot was where a picture that we have all seen hundreds, if not thousands, of times was taken, and where a challenge was laid down that would irreversibly change race relations in the US and across the world. Right there, where we stood, an icon for the ages was made. And a short distance away was the White House, the US Capitol. You could see the statue of Rosa Parks and that of Thomas Jefferson: within and between their lives, what a story there is.
All students should have access to that. I don’t just mean Washington and US and civil rights history (though it wouldn’t be a bad thing), but that electric moment when the past touches the present and you are the conduit. I have been a passionate supporter of the government’s new curriculum. It’s an entitlement for all children to the education that the most privileged take for granted.
But “educational trips and visits” are not just for the knowledge, they are for the experience. Of course, knowledge is important – like many teachers, I’ve been on trips to fascinating places where the kids showed little interest because they had no framework into which to put what they were seeing, because too little had been taught to them. Mosaics appear merely as chipped tiles, battlefields empty grass, statutes no more than street furniture.
But the knowledge we endow should also be a bridge to the rich experience, so a student can see for themselves what so far you have only helped them see in their mind. In the baking heat of the Washington summer, I believe we forged for these students an experience that will live with them for a lifetime; hopefully, they’ll remember Lincoln’s memorial as I still remember that Roman palace. Every child should have a moment, ideally many moments, like that, whatever background they’re from.
I didn’t get to walk on the mosaics that day when I was 5 – a grumpy bearded man did, and he gave me my pencil back. But I’m grateful now. If he had let me, maybe the urge to touch the past would have been lost. I am delighted that I still have that drive to see the magic up close: we must ensure every child in our schools gets that chance, too.
John Blake is a teacher, education writer and policy researcher