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What's it got to do with me?
Once upon a time ROBYN ANNEAR thought history was boring, but she grew up to write books about it. She hopes her story of daffodils and six degrees will help teachers spark the their students’ interest in history.
Tell people that I grew up in a place that had no history. It was a new suburb, and everything in it was new. The orchards were gone, old buildings pulled down or hidden, and paddocks where mushrooms had grown were smothered by a shopping mall. Everything started as of now.
Which was fine with me, or so I thought. My first awareness of the past around me came at 15, that restless age. Walking one day along the main road—six lanes of traffic flanked by service stations, car yards and fast food—I passed a low brick wall. Behind it, among long grass and weeds, clumps of daffodils caught my eye. I stopped. Traffic roared by. Daffodils, a front fence, but no house—not anymore. And I wondered then, for the first time, What was here before? I didn’t know it, but a door had opened for me, just a crack: a door to the living past.
At 15, history at school meant nothing more to me than a waste of chalk and time. My objection to the subject was the same as my objection to anything I dismissed as ‘boring’—that is, What’s it got to do with me? It wasn’t a bad question, but it was a rhetorical one. I wasn’t interested in finding the answer.
Eventually, the answer found me. Work, travel and escape to the inner city put history, literally, in my path. More and more, as I walked through places strange and familiar, I found myself wondering What was here before? or What happened here before? Curiosity led me to explore and imagine the past of old buildings, laneways, demolition sites. And as the door to the living past swung wider for me, the present too became more imbued with meaning. That, I discovered, was what history had to do with me.
Since I began writing books on historical subjects, I’ve often been asked why and how history ought to be taught. Part of me (the part that’s forever 15) says: Don’t bother—people will discover history for themselves, or not; you can’t make them take an interest. But my grown-up self says otherwise. Taking an interest in the past leads you to take more of an interest in the present, too. It leads you to notice things—not just old things—and to wonder about them. That’s one step on the way to empathy. An awareness of the past also fosters a sense of continuity, endurance and hope; that things have happened before now, that others were here before us, and, by implication, that life will go on.
Taking an interest in the past enriches everyday life, because all that noticing and wondering means that you no longer see just what’s on the surface. Surrounded by tower blocks or cream brick veneers or gated estates of neo-Georgian villas? Find out—or, failing that, imagine—what used to be there. If the farmhouse was beyond those trees, was this where the dairy stood? Didn’t the track to the goldfields pass near here? Wasn’t this whole area once covered by ‘slums’? What did the wreckers find when they pulled them down? That building on the corner used to be a coffee palace. What is a coffee palace, anyway? Isn’t this the spot where the mayor took flight with a bull at his heels when an Empire Day parade when awry in 1904? Once you start asking questions like these, a walk to the shops—or to school—becomes something like time-travel.
Here I am, making a case for history; but to what purpose, when we seem to expect students, in particular, to set their gaze firmly on the future? In an essay entitled ‘Science Fiction and the Future’, Ursula K. LeGuin turned the notions of past and future back-to-front. The indigenous people of the Andes, she wrote:
‘… figure that because the past is what you know, you can see it— it’s in front of you, under your nose … they say that the future lies behind—behind your back, over your shoulder. The future is what you can’t see …’
You’ve got to admit there’s a logic to it. Perhaps our kids are facing the wrong way, advancing blindly into the future with backs turned to all they ought to know—and all that might sustain them.
As for the how of teaching history … well, being neither a teacher nor someone who thrived in a classroom, what do I know? All I know for certain is what has worked for me, the key to my transformation from history-lug to enthusiastic time-traveller. And it’s this: making connections is vital. By treating What’s it got to do with me? as a starting point rather than a dead-end, you can connect with the past in a personal and meaningful way.
Think about the Six Degrees of Separation: the theory (and popular 1990s parlour game) positing that each of us is separated by no more than six ‘degrees’—acquaintances or other points of connection—from any other person on the planet. It works like a game of leap-frog, only using imaginative leaps of coincidence and circumstance to link yourself, in six steps or less, with, say, Posh Spice or the first man on the moon.
Why not try the same approach with history? Challenge students to establish six degrees of separation between themselves and a nominated historical figure or event—from something as broad as World War I or the gold rushes, to somebody as specific as Mary Reibey, Kemal Atatürk or a member of the Kelly gang. Here’s how a US journalist, A.J. Liebling, linked himself (in eight steps, admittedly) with a long-dead boxing legend:
It is through Jack O’Brien that I trace my rapport with the historic past. He hit me, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom he won the light-heavyweight title in 1906. Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose.
The laying on of fists is neither necessary nor recommended as a method of historical research. But you get the idea.
The ‘six degrees’ approach can also be used to establish links between seemingly disparate epochs and events. Try joining the dots between, for instance, the American War of Independence and the Eureka Stockade, or between Eureka and the Whitlam government.
Discovering connections is, for me, the greatest pleasure that history brings. Familiar people and ideas keep turning up, often in the most unlikely places. What you come to realise is not that history repeats itself, but that it’s a vast web connecting everything—including you.
LeGuin, Ursula K (1992). Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, Paladin, London, p 142.
Liebling, A J (1956). The Sweet Science, Viking Press, New York, p 7.
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