For those of you who have never read my About page, you may be surprised to know that as well as being a “techie”, I’m MA in Modern History (the story of how I came to have a career in technology is possibly less interesting than it might outwardly appear). As such, I wanted to take a moment to comment on a couple of things that have come up in the past week.
History teaching in the UK
I don’t remember my first history lesson, how I became aware of my own cultural background, or when or why I fell in love with the study of history. I just remember, when I came to choose exam subjects at 13/14, that for me History was a no-brainer, something I thoroughly enjoyed and wanted to dive deeper into. Despite my affinity for and interest in science (I was working on some Chemistry software for RISC OS with a friend of mine at the time), it was also a natural study for me to pursue into A-level and, eventually, as my Degree subject.
I won’t claim that the transition to a technical career was straightforward. It’s true that while (in my opinion) a History graduate has a range of flexible and totally transferable skills, recruitment out of universities in the UK 15 years ago (and, I suspect, even more so today) was limited in outlook. Although I’d a number of examples of technical knowledge and had my own business selling RISC OS software with a friend, many larger organisations simply wanted a science education, and I didn’t have one to show them. I was grateful of the UK Post Office taking a broader view of my skill set and taking me on as an IT Graduate (or, one of the “Graduates in IT Services”… yes, you work out that acronym… charming!).
Back to the subject though. Academically, philosophically, politically, and in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, I believe that History is vitally important. What did I gain from devoting a number of years of my life to that study? Strong analytical skills spanning multiple media; broad and I believe, sensitive, cultural awareness (yes, really – from a Brit!); and an understanding of how we became the human race we are today.
This past week, Professor Niall Ferguson published an editorial piece in the Guardian claiming that British history teaching was at a point of crisis.
[aside: Niall Ferguson is the best lecturer I ever had… I clearly remember his first lecture to my fellow students and I, which began with the clanging industrial noises of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, immediately capturing the attention of even the most feckless and disinterested mid-90s Oxford student (although my female colleagues seemed captured not so much by the audio, but by the visuals and voice…)]
I was disappointed to read about the state of affairs described in his piece, and the accompanying article describing the loss of cohension in the UK History curriculum. Now let’s be clear – to an extent, I was always in a privileged position with regard to education generally and to History education as well. If things are really in such dire straits today I do despair – I don’t get the same sense of ignorance from friends of other nationalities, and whilst I don’t advocate any kind of imperialist triumphalism in British History education, by ignoring trends, and what Niall Ferguson calls the “long arc of time”, our children clearly miss out. I’m not going to trot out cliches about how we have to understand past mistakes to avoid repeating them – we do that regardless, it’s part of the human condition and pride. The point is: there’s excitement and interest in our story. And honestly, how annoyed would you be if every story you ever heard, read, listened to or attempted to understand, arrived in disjointed pieces that were impossible to lace together?
I hope the UK teaching profession, and the appropriate education authorities, listen to reason. And I hope that the apparent focus on science as the be-all-and-end-all of education learns to flex in favour of other subjects, too – speaking as a STEM Ambassador, myself.
History on the web
I’ve remarked before about the web as a historical source. The death of archive services like DejaNews (it was the archive for Usenet, and finally bought by Google, which turned it into Google Groups, before burying / de-emphasising access to older content) was a terrible thing, even if it does mean that it is now very difficult to locate evidence of my embarrassing mid-teen and early 20s days online! The move to the real-time web, and the increasing focus on sites like Twitter and Facebook (through which historical seach is both de-emphasised, and technically virtually impossible), is increasingly reducing the value of the web as a historical resource.
Suw Charman has written about this issue this week, and it caught my attention particularly in the context of the other issues currently exercising my brain.
I return to a thought I’ve expressed previously: sites that revolve around EVENTS have an opportunity here. When I wrote about Lanyrd I said:
here’s what I think is a really cool feature. You can attach all kinds of “coverage” to an event, be it slides, audio, video, liveblogged information, blogged write-ups, etc etc. So your point-in-time event suddenly gains a social and historical footprint with an aggregation of all the content that grew up around it, which people can go back to.
The thing that really grabbed my attention this week was the seemingly-minor and gimmicky discovery that someone has created an entry for the 1945 Yalta meetingsh on Lanyrd. This is awesome – a demonstration of what it can provide, and what we need – the ability to tie content together and aggregate, link, and retain related information in the context of people and events. All of which is only really interesting if we have a population that understands where we (globally) have come from…