Recently, I’ve been making a mental note of historical terms used in general conversation. I described a friend’s attitude towards lesson planning as “cavalier”; a minimally furnished flat as “spartan”; and a colleague’s work ethic as “puritanical”. Another friend labelled herself a “Luddite” for her views on classroom technology and “tyrannical” for her opinions on behaviour management.
Some may feel that those who pepper conversation with historical allusions are simply being pretentious. However, such terms serve an important purpose. Take the word “Luddite”. It is an economical means of describing a very particular outlook, and has far more power than explaining at length that someone “resists in vain the advance of new -technologies, much like the stocking weavers of early 19th-century Nottingham”.
The use of such vocabulary exemplifies what the American educationalist E D Hirsch describes as a society’s “shared knowledge”. Through making references and allusions, we are able to communicate complex ideas with ease, enriching our national conversation. Hirsch argues that it is through teaching a knowledge-based curriculum that we can initiate young people into such discussions.
That our national conversation is rich with historical allusion is not an opinion. It is a fact. A search of The Times’ digital archive reveals that over the course of 2014, the British Empire was referenced 168 times; the Industrial Revolution 149 times; Magna Carta 139 times; and the Battle of Waterloo 52 times (the last two may have something to do with their upcoming anniversaries). As for historical vocabulary, “Luddite” was used 35 times; “puritan” 78 times; and “spartan” 66 times.
The importance of such “shared knowledge” was recently brought home to me when I began teaching classical civilisation GCSE. This has allowed me to address what has always been a gaping lacuna in my own cultural literacy: my ignorance of classical literature. Reading Homer over the summer was a revelation. Not only do I now have a proper understanding of what is meant by an Achilles’ heel and a Trojan Horse, I finally know what is meant by a wailing Cassandra, a lotus-eater and being between Scylla and Charybdis. I understand the origin of the words siren, tantalising and hector, not to mention the name of the Dutch football team Ajax. Increasingly, I’m spotting classical references in newspapers, books and on television that for years sailed over my head.
Such historical and literary allusions are an example of a wider argument about the transferability of knowledge. We often hear talk of schools equipping children with transferable skills but knowledge is just as easily transferred – if not more so.
Take the example of history. Learning about the feudal system in medieval England gives pupils a frame of reference for understanding other social hierarchies, be it the Hindu caste system or Russian serfdom. And learning about the English Civil War involves themes (tyranny, popular uprising, military dictatorship) that provide insight into other national upheavals such as the French Revolution or even the Arab Spring of 2011.
I share the belief of many teachers that schools should -develop “lifelong learners”, but it is through giving pupils transferable knowledge that we will best achieve this aim. Existing knowledge gives pupils the mental architecture to acquire new knowledge.
This is an edited version of the complete article. To read the full story, get the 15 May edition of TES on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents