Thanks for the memory

Philip Ingram describes how oral history can be a mutually enriching experience

It started badly. On the video the two women looked uneasy in front of the camera. Their nervous glances as they waited for a prompt from the student with the microphone provoked sniggers from the class. Then the first woman spoke. "My name is Emma Thompson. I was born in 1900 . . ." The class went silent, perhaps out of fascinated respect for longevity or because they realised they were seeing history in the flesh. At that moment I knew I was on to something worthwhile.

This first interview was the start of a partnership between my school history department and the local day centre for the elderly. It is a partnership which promises significant mutual benefits. It started as an investigation into the local experience of the First World War but has broadened and deepened as students have used the day centre as a resource base for exploring local aspects of the history curriculum.

In an age of growing unspoken acceptance that the broad span of education can be encompassed on a computer monitor, it may seem obvious and banal to celebrate the importance of conversation. There is no doubt that any history student can access more accurate and high-quality information from technology than can ever be gained from hours of tedious interviews. But this misses the point - accessing people is more life-enriching and challenging than any software, no matter how virtual the reality.

In their relations with the elderly interviewees, students have been exposed to characters and experiences that have demanded personal and social skills of the highest order.

The decline of the extended family has broken the link between young and old, and many students experience the elderly only as morose television comedy characters. Oral history projects between schools and the elderly help break down the negative stereotype of age and disability.

My own students have handled the trauma of recalled bereavement from Spanish flu in 1919 and the potential embarrassment of describing courting rituals of the 1930s. They have used specialist equipment to communicate with interviewees whose speech and hearing are impaired, and have given up their time to accompany elderly people on day trips. Such experiences are invaluable.

The elderly also derive significant benefit from the interviews. The arrival of a group of students becomes an "event" on the calendar. Those being interviewed enjoy the experience and often draw in others to confirm their own memories. Conversations often continue long after the questions end.

The old people ask their own questions. They often show real curiosity about the life of the modern teenager and want to compare it with their own experiences. In this process the negative stereotype of the young as reckless and selfish is gradually called into question. "I thought they were very good. They listened. Normally young people are just into mischief."

For Julia Wright, leader of the day centre, encouraging clients to remember their own past has a practical therapeutic value. Old age often brings loss of memory and increased dependence on others, which in turn leads to a damaging loss in personal identity and self-worth.

She counters this with personal history displays - photos of smiling men in demob suits or women in long-gone fashions under a heading "Frocks I Have Loved". She welcomes the students because their questions serve the same purpose. "We remind people who they are. We value what they say and reaffirm their individuality," she says.

The students gain more practical benefits. The interviews help develop historical skills. Students have learned to cope with flawed and selective memory. They have realised the importance of keeping their scepticism well-hidden. That my pupils noticed the mistake when a woman said she learned of the start of the First World War through a Churchill speech on the radio gave me some satisfaction. That none of them pointed the mistake out to her gave me great pride.

Student discernment and discretion was evident when they questioned tales of the Bishop Auckland soccer team of the 1950s. "Harry Sharrod, the goalkeeper, once built a snowman on his goal-line during a match. They were losing badly at half-time so they dammed a nearby beck and flooded the pitch."

"Is this possible, Sir?"

Above all, during these interviews a few students have glimpsed the intangible wonderment of the subject, which, if we're honest, can rarely be brought into the classroom. They have rediscovered experiences so old as to be literally endangered - the bombardment of Hartlepool in 1914 or a zeppelin shot down near Sunderland. They have uncovered details lost because of their very mundaneness - sawdust on the floor of Woolworth's and courting couples making daisy chains in nearby woods. They have heard of sounds that will never be heard again - Italian prisoners of war singing love-songs as they worked the fields near Durham, or the insect-buzz then dreadful silence of an incoming doodle-bug.

The teacher of history has a duty to pass experience down to young people first-hand. So leave the computer and textbook for a while and get your students talking to the elderly. It is easy to forget that memories of this dying century will not exist forever and if monuments are needed for a new millenium, it will cost nothing to build them in the minds of our students.

Dr Philip Ingram is head of history at Teesdale School, County Durham

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