Time for History in a History Degree

Third-year undergraduate Tim Galsworthy reflects on a year of participating in ‘History at the Hawthorns’: a series of informal discussions with academics outside the seminar room.

Whilst undertaking a History degree at the University of Bristol we spend an awful lot of time doing history, but we spend less time thinking about history. What are we doing history for? Who are we doing history for? Is there even any point in doing history at all? These are some of the major questions we have been wrangling with during the History at the Hawthorns series. The History at the Hawthorns series has given us an informal setting to discuss all things historical. From topic specific sessions, such as one on the historical memory of the Easter Rising, to general sessions of big issues, such as the pursuit of truth in history, we have covered a great deal of material.

We reached general consensus on the importance of public history, a major topic of our discussions. In a world of diffuse moments, historical films, and even historical video games the past is omnipresent in our society. We debated the issues of ‘truth’ and ‘accuracy’ in public history, agreeing that academia needs to engage with the general populace. The issue of historical memory, especially physical reminders of the past, also drew our attention. The concurrent ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign informed these debates. We argued that erasure of the past is just as dangerous as the celebration of imperialism. We argued for the historicising of artefacts, rather than their destruction. Once more we saw the importance of engaging in such public historical issues.

The make-up of our History at the Hawthorns group has been just as rewarding as the discussions themselves. Our group contained first, second, and third years, along with Masters students. A number of mature students also made up our group. It was extremely satisfying to discuss historical issues with a diverse assembly of people. Different ages, even different generations, from different backgrounds bring a great variety of views to the table. It is always worthwhile to hear competing opinions, sometimes opinions you never even considered, on such important topics. It is only through such interactions that we can grow as historians specifically, and as individuals generally. The interaction between students in different years is expedient in creating a greater sense of community in our school.

Praise must also be paid to the academics who took the time to lead these sessions. History at the Hawthorns allowed me to feel like a historian in training. The informal nature of the discussions allowed staff and students to discuss history as equal, coming from different perspectives and different predispositions. Just as talking with students from other years contributes to a more wholesome University experience, talking with academics enables students to consider themselves as junior academics in a shared scholarly community. As someone who wants to become an academic, but is currently still a student, the opportunity to look a major historical problems from both sides of the fence was an incredibly useful experience.

We spend so much of our University experience with our heads stuck in books, writing essays, and accumulating marks. History at the Hawthorns afforded us a casual vehicle to spend time just talking about history, without having to worry about exams or essays. It enabled us to really sit down and think about what history means, to historians as a collective and to us as individuals. There is nothing better than discussing history, over or a pint or a cuppa, with other people passionate about the past. Sometimes our degree gets so hectic – especially for third years like me – that we forget just how lucky we are to spend our time doing history. The History at the Hawthorns series has reminded me just how much I love history purely for the sake for it, rather than just as a degree subject. I would recommend students in future years take up the opportunity to partake in this series.

The Lost Workscape of Tyneside

Hunter Charlton, a 2015 graduate of Bristol University’s History Department, has made a film about the decline of industry on Tyneside in collaboration with the AHRC research project The Power and the Water.

Hunter also wrote a final year undergraduate dissertation on ‘Landscape and Change: Shipbuilding and Identity on the Tyne’, which you can read here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/history/documents/dissertations/2015charlton.pdf.

The Case of Father Bloodsucker

Our series by new lecturers continues with a piece by Will Pooley, Lecturer in Modern European History, who brings together his work on the histories of folklore and witchcraft with this blog on the strange case of ‘Father Bloodsucker’:

I’ve come across a few pretty weird cases in my ongoing search to find crimes involving witchcraft in France between 1791 and 1940, but perhaps none are stranger than the story of ‘Father Bloodsucker’ (Le Père Sangsue).

This is how the violently anti-clerical and republican newspaper La Lanterne told the story at the time:

The following events took place in a small village in the Gers, where there lived an ugly old man who had been dubbed Father Bloodsucker, who lived by a pond teeming with eels and leeches. But nobody dared to fish in the pond, which was considered bewitched!

Father Bloodsucker claimed to be a witch, exploiting the terror he inspired in order to extract food and tobacco from the local population.

But one local man, Jacques Drux, refused to give in, driving Father Bloodsucker out of his house with his cudgel. Father Bloodsucker decided to take revenge.

He managed to gain the trust of both Jacques Drux’s daughters. He made them believe that the Kingdom of Leeches lay under his pond, and that he himself was King.

Every month, he was transformed into a leech and would go to see his subjects. Underwater, there was a wonderful palace.

Finally, he told them that any girl who threw herself in the pond on the night of the full moon at midnight, will be turned into a mermaid, and become princess of the leeches.

Inspired by his words, the young girls, Jeanne and Madeleine, arrived one night, determined to take the plunge. Jeanne rushed in first. Madeleine was about to follow her, when she saw a terrible head grinning in the rushes nearby. Father Bloodsucker had therefore not turned into a leech at all!

Madeleine realized the horrible truth and ran away, mad with terror. The next day, the locals found the body of Jeanne, with hundreds of leeches attached.

The old rascal has not been seen since.

Several things immediately make me suspicious about this story with its strange Freudian undertones:

-The vagueness of the location. Newspapers tended to either report the exact location of witchcraft cases, down to the hamlet or street where events took place… or they would use anonymised details, and ellipses to draw a veil of privacy over personal tragedies.

The apparent blind credulity of the rural population. This is largely inconsistent – no matter what the newspapers claimed – with how people actually behaved in accusations of witchcraft. Many participants were skeptical, empirical, and careful, but confessed confusion and dismay at events they did not understand. In the case of Father Bloodsucker, though, the entire local population supposedly falls for his deception, and the young daughter of Jacques Drux are particularly vulnerable. This discourse of female credulity and superstition was the stock in trade of anti-clerical publications like La Lanterne.

The fairy elements of a hidden world where a humble outcast is actually king. The story sounds suspiciously like a folk tale. There are a whole set of tales where it tends to be heroes (rather than villains) who persuade their enemies to jump into lakes or rivers, claiming there are submarine realms where they can become rich. If crimes involving supernatural beliefs such as witchcraft were fairly common (there were often three a year mentioned in the national press), this is the first time I have seen any evidence of a crime based the fairy world in France. Perhaps there are similarities here to the famous case of the murder of Bridget Cleary in Ireland, but even that is quite different to Father Bloodsucker. Bridget’s murder had many of the features of intra – family conflict, misfortune, and ill-health that characterise witchcraft crises.

The characterisation and motives of the protagonists. These all sound rather fanciful, and stereotyped, more like how urban writers imagined the moral conflicts of the countryside than how people there actually behaved.

And it turns out I am right to be suspicious.

Twenty five years before this story appeared in La Lanterne, the Beaumarchais theatre in Paris briefly hosted a piece called ‘Le Père Sangsue’.

I have had a quick look through library catalogues, and cannot find any evidence of a script for this show, but it may well be that this was the kind of light (?) entertainment that leaves little trace in the archives. If any does know anything about this show, or about the Beaumarchais, I’d love to hear more.

But is that the end of Father Bloodsucker?

My research is about the very real conflicts that French men and women engaged in over sorcery in this period. The story of literary representations of witchcraft during the same era is in many senses a completely different one, which Vincent Robert has begun to tell.

Or is it?

I can speculate about why La Lanterne chose to present a story that was almost certainly fabricated as if it were true. Perhaps they were simply passing on a badly researched legend, which may have come from the theatre piece, or may have been the inspiration for both the earlier theatre piece and the newspaper story itself.

Or perhaps they were making a point about the credulity of the French population. La Lanterne was very fond of referring to the Catholic priesthood in the same terms most other newspapers reserved for the fraudsters, magicians, and magical healers hauled before the courts in this period. Perhaps Father Bloodsucker was meant to be read allegorically?

Whatever the case, it seems important to me that this story could be presented as if true, because it suggests I have to be careful whose truth I am dealing with when looking through the newspapers. Did readers think this story was true? Might it have fed back into their own beliefs about the creepy old men who lived near their houses?

How to draw a firm line between fact and fiction?

The Lives of Others

Grace Huxford, who joined the department as a lecturer in nineteenth/twentieth century British history in September 2015, reflects on reading letters and diaries in historical research:

Trooper of King’s Royal Hussars, Writing Home c. 1950. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.

Trooper of King’s Royal Hussars, Writing Home c. 1950. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.

For a number of years, my New Year’s Resolution was to keep a diary. Like many would-be diarists, I always started well; the first couple of weeks of January contained detailed descriptions of my day, who I had talked to, what music I had listened to, what I had eaten. But by February my entries would fizzle out and the notebook would go back in a drawer for another year. Apart from providing snapshots into my rather mundane activities in January (and the phenomenon of New Year’s Resolutions), I imagine that my diaries would be of little interest to future historians. Furthermore, I would be mortified if these diaries were to ever to reappear – even more so, if they were to reappear in a published format, like an article or book. Last year, many famous diarists noted how they were appalled at reading their old diaries once again. Recalling these attempts at diary-writing always prompts me to think: how should historians treat ‘private’ documents like letters and diaries? Even those which are publically available via archives?

In researching the experiences of British servicemen during the Korean War (1950-1953), I have read a great number of other people’s diaries, as well as personal letters sent from serving soldiers to their loved ones: letters from husbands to wives, boyfriends to girlfriends, fathers to children, sons to parents. Understandably, the tone, length and content of these letters varied greatly. One letter from a prisoner of war held in China contained a picture of a dog for his four-year-old child (something that could not be objected to by the censors at the prisoner of war camp). Elsewhere, fathers at home in Britain wrote to their sons (many 19-21 year old National Service conscripts served in Korea) about their own experiences in the Second World War and their advice for keeping warm, happy or busy. Many young National Servicemen also wrote to their mothers, asking for socks and magazines to be sent as soon as possible.

In one particular set of letters a young conscript told his fiancée (in great detail) about the silk stockings he had bought her when on leave in Japan. When reading such material, I was reminded of the diary theorist Julie Rak’s comment that we are all ‘voyeurs when we read the diaries of others’.[1] In the most personal letters, the researcher becomes deeply aware that the letter is the full extent of that relationship at a given time – what sociologist Liz Stanley has called ‘a simulacrum of presence’.[2] Some letter writers were even told to give as much detail as possible: in 1945 psychologist Kenneth Howard advised army wives writing to their husbands that ‘[n]o scrap of news, of domestic detail, of friends and of local events is too trivial to be interesting. These things make him feel that he belongs, that he is still there and in touch with all that is going on.’[3] The letter was thus a microcosm of an entire relationship and the social world the soldier had left behind. In this case, the historian feels even more like a ‘voyeur’.

War Memorial, Paddington Station, soldier reading.

War Memorial, Paddington Station, soldier reading a letter.

But perhaps viewing letters and diaries as ‘private’ and beyond the ethical realms of the historian is to misunderstand this material. Scholars of diary writing in the Soviet Union (such as Jochen Hellbeck) have noted that it is inaccurate to see a diary or a letter as a purely private space, because ‘selfhood’ in this context was neither private nor public. People used diaries to cast particular public roles for themselves or (as in the case of war) to reflect on public, geopolitical events. Furthermore, they always anticipated a future reader, even if it was just a future version of themselves. Neither are letters simply just between two people – in the 1950s, as in earlier periods, letters were read aloud, shared around family members or even published in newspapers or newsletters (as in the case of some British POW letters from Korea).

So perhaps reservations over using publically-accessible, willingly-deposited letters and diaries is nothing but squeamishness on my part. As I put my diary back in the drawer for yet another year, I think it is important to remember that as historians we should interrogate not just the content of a diary or letter, nor just the context of its production, but what that source represents to both the writer and the reader (and the historian).

[1] Julie Rak, ‘Dialogue with the Future. Philippe Lejeune’s Method and Theory of Diary’, in Philippe Lejeune (eds Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak; trans. Katherine Durning), On Diary (Honolulu, 2009), p. 20.

[2] Liz Stanley, ‘The Epistolarium. On Theorizing Letters and Correspondences’, Auto/Biography, 12 (2004), p. 208

[3] Kenneth Howard, Sex Problems of the Returning Soldier (Manchester, c. 1945). p. 59.

An Interdisciplinary Study of a Victorian Medicine Cabinet

Isabel Wiltshire reflects on this summer’s interdisciplinary research internship, which brought chemistry together with the history of medicine; the project was supervised by Dr Victoria Bates (history) and Dr Jenny Slaughter (chemistry).

How can chemistry be used to write history? This was the question that I set out to answer this summer, using the contents of a Victorian medicine cabinet discovered at Tyntesfield House in North Somerset. This cabinet was the property of the Gibbs family who were prosperous traders and contains over 150 bottles; the contents of the cabinet ranged from medicinal ingredients to prescriptions and ‘quack’ medicines. The School of Chemistry of the University of Bristol has been involved in the safe cleaning of the bottles contained within it, many of which contained poisons and dangerous substances. I am a third year undergraduate chemistry student and have investigated the cabinet as part of an interdisciplinary project between the School of Chemistry and the Department of History.

Cabinet The cabinet – as it was found by National Trust Staff

It has become apparent, as I reach the end, that this project was far more history-based than chemistry-based, despite my initial introduction to it being through the School of Chemistry. This was inevitable really, when dealing with a Victorian artefact. However, when starting out, the sheer size of the task was daunting: I had never done historical research or studied history at any great length. Where to start? I went about the historical research the way I would go about researching a lab report. After three years of studying chemistry, I sure know how to type a keyword into a database. It turned out, of course, to be a lot harder than that. There was in fact very little literature on the exact area of history I was interested in: self-care in Victorian England. I wanted to know what happened after the doctor left, or before he would even have been called out. I started big, trying to gain a general idea of what medicine and sickness were like at the time, because I really don’t have a historical backing to start from; this process was pretty much the equivalent of reading a chemistry textbook before starting a research project because you don’t know what molecules are. I could then start going into detail about particular areas that, together, would give me an idea of how Victorians treated themselves when ill.  This research covered pharmacists, opium and quackery, to name but a few, and focused initially on books and papers published by historians. Finally I got down to the primary sources, many of which are quite different from a primary source in science. My historical primary sources included diary entries and newspapers, whereas a primary source in chemistry would generally be a journal article, peer-reviewed and presenting the latest research in that field. I found the historical primary sources to be often amusing and horrifying in equal measures (I would recommend the seminal tome, Memoirs of a Stomach to anyone). medicines It was certainly a challenge to apply my chemistry skills to a historical problem, but my background as a science student didn’t hinder my research. Any skills I have in research I believe I obtained by studying chemistry. Despite disciplinary differences, in both chemistry and history it is possible to take a medical cabinet as a ‘source’: a starting point for research. By using my skills in chemistry to analyse the medicine itself, instead of just historical books about medicine, I could gain unique insights into the history of medicine. The historical research led me to choose three bottles from the cabinet to sample. Each would be an example of a different aspect of self-care and the medical marketplace in Victorian Britain. Determining the different categories came from the observations of the different bottles and the historical research undertaken. Both complemented each other: seeing that the cabinet contained many tinctures and spirits of herbs and flowers correlated with contemporary and historiographical reports of traditional medicines still being used in ‘modernity’, for instance. The interdisciplinary aspect of the project was essential at this point: chemical analysis was important for identifying what types of medicines were being used; research into the preparation and uses of the different medicines was essential for making this analysis historiographical meaningful. Here, chemistry and history needed to work in tandem. The meeting of chemistry and history is possibly a strange one, but I believe that there is much to be learned by utilizing scientific resources, notably analytical techniques, to aid historical research.

Historians at the Festival of Nature

At the Festival of Nature 2015, a history project ran its first ever stand at the Bristol’s annual celebration of the natural world. ‘Hidden River Histories’ took the research of Bristol-based team members and created an interactive display that introduced environmental history to a diverse audience.


For the full story, and details of the ‘The Power and the Water’ project, see http://www.bristol.ac.uk/publicengagementstories/stories/2015/history-at-science-festival.html and http://powerwaterproject.net/?p=603.

History and Politics: Students Speak

In the wake of the General Election, three students from the Department of History reflect on personal experiences of engaging with politics and political history.

In ‘Beyond the “Baldrick Generation”: Political History from the Classroom to the Seminar Room’, Sophie Hunter considers political education and asks ‘Should history really be relied upon to explain politics?’.

In ‘The Vilification of the Conservative Party in the Classroom’, Lauren Landon argues that ‘over-polarising ideological divisions are harming the discipline’ by sidelining Conservative views within the University.

In ‘Socialist Principles and Historical Studies‘, Tim Galsworthy looks at how his ‘socialist beliefs have intersected with [his] historical studies’ and reflects on the General Election results.

Socialist Principles and Historical Studies

Tim Galsworthy

The university is characteristically conceived as a fundamentally left-wing space, with the long-haired student central to the modern iconography of dissent. Before I came to study History at the University of Bristol I envisioned my time here following the plot of Starter for 10, not just in terms of appearing on University Challenge and having success on the relationship front but also in terms of political protest; I envisaged myself shouting and screaming for endless good causes, and expressing my hatred of Thatcher an awful lot! After two years, and the election of worryingly right-wing Tory government, my (typical wishy-washy liberal) optimism has waned somewhat. The election result on May 7th has led me to pause and reflect on just how my socialist beliefs have intersected with my historical studies, and whether my left-wing conceptualisation of Bristol University is actually shared by my peers.

A cursory glance at the units found on Bristol’s History course would seem to belie the idea that it is a left-wing discipline. The study of the British Empire or the Tudor period in mandatory first year units seems a world away from radicalism. Yet that is from just a cursory glance, my socialism has taught me to always look below the surface and beyond the obvious. Yes we study the British Empire, but we focus an awful lot on the economic criticisms of imperialism. Moreover, we study seemingly un-socialist topics with a particularly left-wing stance, thanks to the advances of ‘new political History’. Whilst studying the Tudor period we study Henry VIII and Elizabeth I yes, but we also delve into the world of Tudor rebellions. These rebellions are now interpreted by the majority of the academic community not as spasmodic anarchy but as markers of political agency, an avenue for my plebeian ancestors to voice their displeasure before the days of the ballot box or the picket line. Fundamentally our undergraduate study encourages us to look at such ‘history from below’, to consider how the 99 per cent have stories to tell too. History teaches us that politics belongs to the people not just the powerful, an overtly left-wing projection for me. Yet perhaps I am being overly polarising here, after all is it truly that revolutionary to believe that the 99 per cent have a voice and a history too?

Within the somewhat left-wing framework that historical studies afford us I have always found myself drawn to the left-wing figures of my specific courses. This attraction to radical historical actors- whether it was John Brown and Frederick Douglass when I studied the American Civil War, or Abbie Hoffman and Herbert Marcuse when I studied Sixties America- is my socialism expressing itself in my studies. I always assumed others were drawn to such militants too, especially given the popularity of both these units, and shared at least a semblance of my liberalism. But assumptions are so often wrong.

In every class I have undertaken I have mocked and criticised right-wing politics and parties, the Tories and UKIP especially, and these positions have received little defence. Yet May 7th has made me realise that Tories among students are like Tories in the general public – they are a silent but dormant force. Anyone who was with me at the Student Union for the Election results will agree that a sizeable number of Tories seemed to come out of nowhere. The University of Bristol is found within the notably progressive Bristol West constituency, which has just elected the brilliant Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire, and thus students are certainly socially liberal in terms of equality issues. Yet I fear Bristol students are much more conservative on economic matters.

The 2015 Election has disheartened many on the left, including myself, given the rise of a very right-of-centre Tory government and the disheartening successes of Nigel Farage’s collection of crackpots. But if historical studies can offer a socialist anything it is hope. Being left-wing certainly makes us critical purveyors of the past- challenging the ‘Saint’ Bob Geldof narrative of Band Aid, or questioning the liberalism of Kennedy’s Camelot- but it makes us hopeful prospectors too. I myself turn to Attlee’s victory in 1945, or Radical Reconstruction in the nineteenth century, or the anti-fascists who opposed Franco and Mosley as sources of optimism and inspiration. We can dream that 2015 might be such a watershed in future blogs, as the beginning of the end of the right’s ascendancy.


The Vilification of the Conservative Party in the Classroom

Lauren Landon

For the historian, the results of the 2015 General Election confirmed the existence of the working-class Conservative, a neglected, underexplored and mythologised phenomenon in modern British history. This neglect, to some extent at least, has arisen from the tendency to impose political affiliations within historical frameworks. In light of Sir John Seeley’s famous affirmation that ‘history is past politics; and politics is present history’, it is unsurprising how deeply politics pervades the way we conceptualise – and teach – the past. Indeed, popular history permeated the 2015 General Election, where constructed narratives of Victorianism were utilised to demonise the Conservative Party through the allegation that austerity measures ‘send us back to the misery of the Victorian workhouse’.[1] The classroom is not so different. Ultimately, history is mobilised by a leftwing majority to – at times unwittingly and most certainly unfairly – disseminate leftwing political opinion.

Contrary to the belief of many in higher education, I believe that the Conservative Party has never wanted to punish the poor. Nor, as my reading lists so often tell me, is it a dehumanised political machine, operating to cut welfare regardless of the living standards of the most vulnerable in our society. I believe it is a party for working people, dedicated to improving the lives of British citizens and valuing them as equal – and free – individuals above anything else. This involves reducing the role of a patronising and incredibly strained state, which for so long has trapped people in dependency. Rather, Conservatism encourages and propagates aspiration through the value it places on work and equal opportunity to work – so that people have the power to participate in active citizenship.

Voicing these views on social media that fateful Friday morning was like a lamb to slaughter. Keyboard warriors described Conservative voters as ‘Tory scum’ and used lazy political caricatures to vilify personal democratic choices. In an article published in The Telegraph, Labour voter Bryony Gordon depicted social media as a ‘narcissistic echo chamber’.[2] Is this also a fitting way to describe the classroom? I had experienced ‘shy Toryism’ long before the 2015 General Election and I believe it is the result of the vilification of the Conservative Party in the classroom. From my experience, it was deemed morally wrong to identify with Conservatism and the ideology, despite its heterogeneity, was persistently framed as elitist, regressive and cruel. I remember, in a seminar discussion on the Channel 4 programme Benefits Street, Channel 4 was virulently critiqued for airing such a ‘divisive’ programme (‘an objective of the Tory government’), whilst the class was absolutely silent on the potential problems caused by an over-burdened benefit system. It was clear that a ‘false dichotomy’ had developed, which assumed ‘that lower earners are always hard-working while the better off are rapacious and should be taxed more’.[3]

Identifying as a Conservative has not been easy at university. I will never forget the time my admiration for Margaret Thatcher or belief in Milton Friedman’s equality/freedom theory was met with irritated whispers and nasty glares.[4] Or the moment I was told that I could not be both a feminist and a Conservative, which prompted my dissertation research that the two ideologies were not historically antithetical. My research has suggested the contrary; the Conservative Women’s Organisation campaigned just as vehemently for women’s rights as any leftwing women’s organisation. Indeed, the Conservative Party was always vilified in my modules on the history of politics, owing to partisan reading lists, left-wing peers and a very biased field itself. I have also been taught to feel uncomfortable with the leading Conservative historians, whose challenging and often controversial conclusions are shunned out of ideological affinity. Given the popularity of Conservatism, why am I always a minority in my seminars? Is this a characteristic unique to the study of history? Do Conservative economists or geographers feel this way too? Or are students more comfortable to express ‘opposition’ views? Should lecturers practice impartiality or is this not realistic?

It is my inclination that over-polarising ideological divisions are harming the discipline. They are restrictive and precariously limiting, particularly in the classroom. Historians and students should not feel that their ideas are somehow less worthy of discussion or historical recovery, because they envision an alternative strategy, or history, to that which has been written by the left. This is not to say that this work has not already begun. In the case of the history of the welfare state, we are beginning to discover the shared values between the 1909 Minority Report and the Majority Report; including the belief in an organic vision of society, a disdain for amateurism and do-goodism, as well as the advocation of a mixed economy of welfare between state intervention and voluntarism. The stark divisions in the conceptualisation of a welfare system between the left and the right throughout history, then, have often been overstated. At the simplest level, both ideologies recognised a national social security system, a mixed economy of welfare and the very idea of citizenship based on contribution. An understanding of the left and the right as part of a political spectrum is also imperative, as it reveals the tangled, complex and often overlapping ideologies that function in the welfare state trajectory. But to write, and teach, the history of modern Britain, in such a way that more often than not devalues, neglects and vilifies those on the right– despite the central role its actors have played in the advance of society – is a great shame.


[1] T. Hunt, ‘Tory spending cuts send us back to the misery of the Victorian workhouse’, The Mirror (London), 21st October 2013.

[2] B. Gordon, ‘Stop your whingeing: why the Left are such bad losers’, The Telegraph (London), 12th May 2015.

[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/11569473/A-fragile-recovery-needs-tax-cuts-not-Miliband.html

[4] ‘A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both’ – Milton Friedman


Beyond the ‘Baldrick Generation’: Political History from the Classroom to the Seminar Room

Sophie Hunter

The lowering of the legal voting age from 18 to 16 years old is a policy now supported by not only the Labour party, but also the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Yet the national curriculum contains no compulsory political education, not even included in PSHE lessons.  Arguably, and also in my experience, the responsibility for educating the nation’s youth on how exactly and by whom their government is ran, is passed onto history teachers. Should history really be relied upon to explain politics?

The history classroom, with its time for reflection, provides a place to understand politics. Political history is brimming with examples of political successes and failures. The twentieth century alone includes the communist Soviet Union and the far right fascism of the Third Reich; it was my year 9 history teacher who first explained to me the right to left political spectrum. The Henrician reformation, a classroom classic, introduces ideas of the government’s relationship with the church to pupils while the American Civil Rights movement and the struggle of the suffragettes show the importance of a representative democracy.

But even when the study of history encourages independent thought and skills of evaluation, there will always be some level of influence held by the teacher, especially at a pre-university level. The way in which history is taught to us as children has a great impact over how we see and understand the world. When the presentation of the past is so malleable, there are inevitably concerns over the influence this has upon our opinions. Many sneer at the ‘Baldrick generation’ and believe them to unquestioningly lap up the post-World War Two ‘lions led by donkeys’ rhetoric. While I believe ‘indoctrination’ to be far too strong a term to use, unlike sciences and languages, the humanities open themselves up to opinions, and these opinions – in spite of teachers’ good intentions – usually make subconscious appearances within the national curriculum and into the classroom.

The relationship between historical education and its influence over the development of our political understanding continues within a university environment. It is interesting to hear certain perspectives voiced in seminars, where debate is encouraged. I felt this was particularly the case in my Introduction to the history of the British Empire unit. When discussing matters of imperialism and its legacy, I couldn’t help but see the links with current political and international issues. Learning about Britain’s empire gave me a much better rounded understanding of international relations today and the importance of institutions such as the UN. My experiences as a history undergraduate have enriched my political education and understanding, as university allows time for the development of all-important independent thought.

With only 4.6% of A level students in 2014 opting to study Government and Politics, the vast majority of people will never receive a formal political education. Evidently, much of our political education, if not taught at home, is taught indirectly through history lessons. Of course, it is possible for this crucially important task to be achieved via the teaching of history, but unfortunately England is the only country in Europe where history is not compulsory for students beyond the age of 14. Furthermore, despite a rise in the past few years, less than half of school-aged children take GCSE history.

Few would deny that an educated voter is a better voter, but if this is the case I question why there is not compulsory education in politics or political history in our current national curriculum. If plans to lower the voting age to 16 are successful I believe it would be an error to neglect thoroughly teaching current and future generations how their government works.