“Teaching history without the facts? That’s just sociology” argues Brian Viner today. The great historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff certainly thought that dates and facts mattered, although she wrote fiction. Thus for example the dates and periods of her Roman Novels:
The Eagle of the Ninth – 129 AD
The Silver Branch – 284 AD
Frontier Wolf – 343 AD
The Lantern Bearers – 410+ AD
Sword At Sunset – 5th century
Dawn Wind – mid-late 6th century
Sword Song – early 10th century
The Shield Ring – 11th century
And the dates of publication matter, for those who would explore Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing more critically, thus: The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Shield Ring (1956), The Silver Branch (1957), The Lantern Bearers (1959), Dawn Wind (1961), Sword At Sunset (1963), Frontier Wolf (1980).
Frustrated to learn that his 16-year-old son, a student of History A-Level, “… knew neither the year, nor even the century, in which the Spanish Armada set sail”, Brian Viner is provoking and amusing at The Guardian comment-is-free pages about “chronological teaching of history”. He is for some dates, despite recalling that 1066 And All That, was subtitled A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings, and 2 Genuine Dates.
The teaching of history in British schools is increasingly influenced by US methods of presenting the past thematically rather than chronologically. Thus pupils might study crime and punishment, or kingship, and dip in and out of different centuries. Consequently, dates lose their value. So 1605, which for me means the Gunpowder Plot, for my son simply means that he is five minutes late for games.
I didn’t argue with his teacher, and in any case there is more than one way to skin a cat, as Torquemada (1420-1498) knew. Besides, a slant on history that was good enough for two of our greatest historians, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, ought to be good enough for me. The subtitle of their enduringly delightful 1930 book, 1066 And All That, was A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings, and 2 Genuine Dates.
Maybe it wasn’t crusty American academics but Sellar and Yeatman, having a laugh, who really popularised the notion that history can be taught largely without dates. “The first date in English history is 55BC,” they wrote, referring to the arrival of Julius Caesar and his legions on the pebbly shores of Kent. “For the other date, see Chapter 11, William the Conqueror.” They didn’t specify the year in which the King of Spain “sent the Great Spanish Armadillo to ravish the shores of England”.
Whatever, I can see the logic of going down the thematic rather than the chronological route. And I made sympathetic noises when my son’s teacher explained that “it’s helpful for those pupils who struggle to take in lots of facts”. But even if we leave out dates, aren’t facts what history is all about? The rest, as they say, is sociology.