There are some phrases and quotes that always stay with you. For me it was John Boswell: ‘history is not something that can be taught in a vacuum’. For me it speaks to how we see world and each other.
History is not something carved in stone. It is not even something passed on a scrap of ever tattier paper from person to person, father to son, mother to daughter. History is something that is alive and changes even as we learn about it.
We can never see the past. History, or rather the study of history, is a bridge we build to better help us understand what might have happened and why. The tools we use are all that you would expect: books, pictures, testimonies and more.
But for young people today with an ever increasing reliance on three minute videos and click bait that demands of us things you would not believe, there is a need for a better approach to the study of the past. Too many boys and girls are now connecting with tales of the History Channel’s ‘ancient aliens’, fictionalised histories and Hollywood cacophonies, rather than connecting to what matters most – their own past.
At Wellington College in Shanghai we don’t just rely on the textbooks, as to do so would deny us the use of a far more important resource – the people around us.
Connecting with the past is not necessarily connecting with what happened, but why it happened and how people understood the events.
To do this we should focus not just on what we can establish, but also a sense of why. What drives the actions of these people in the past, such a foreign country?
We cannot get in their heads, but what we can do is talk to those who understand better than we do.
Who better to discuss war with, than a man who was a serving soldier? Who better to discuss imperialism with than those who have grown up in its (thankfully) ever lessening shadow? Who better to talk about religious differences than those who follow those religions?
More than this, there are past events we cannot hope to connect to, other than in the most tenuous way. But with enough of those links we can start to breathe life into those distant times. The study of the crusades is a task that seems as alien as studying the stars; but with the help of those who understand the religions, the geography, the mechanisms of war, how life was impacted by weather and disease, how the economics of the period worked, we can add context to sometimes dry historical sources.
All around us we have resources at our finger tips. Connecting with our community – especially in such a broad and international community – gives boys and girls studying history a chance to see the world through a hundred pairs of eyes, not just their own.
Throughout our international community here in Shanghai are the people who understand the industrial revolution more than they know because they are knee deep in Chinese industry. There are people who understand better the struggle of the German people during the Cold War because it was then they were at school in Munich or Berlin. There may be people who were tied up in the banking crisis of 2008 and saw it first hand, but they also have the power to discuss the banking crash of the 1840s in the UK.
Our lives today reflect our past in a powerful way. At Wellington College International Shanghai we try to tap in to every possible experience amongst the staff, the pupils and the parent body to help the boys and girls build their own bridge to the past, to help them better understand not what happened – but why.
From a staff member talking about his military experiences, to parent seminars on the way they were taught History in their respective countries, or visiting friends of the college revealing what life was like in their country; history is a community issue. As far as possible, we will continue teaching it as a community.
Head of History