Could we judge how well you were taught history by your performance in the LSN History Test?

Janet Downs's picture
Here are 6 questions about the period 1939 -1969. Answer from memory:

1 Who said, “Ich bin ein Berliner”?

(a) Adolf Hitler (b) John F Kennedy (c) A character in the musical “Cabaret”

2 What was the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour?

3 Who said, “We are more popular than Jesus”?

(a) The Manson family (b) The Tory party after its 1959 victory (c) The Beatles

4 In what year was the Abortion Act passed?

5 What was the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial about?

(a) Whether a book was so obscene it should not be published;

(b) Lady Chatterley was accused of causing her maid actual bodily harm;

(c) A Government minister was accused of passing secrets to his lover, a Russian spy codenamed “Lady Chatterley”.

6 Which of these characters is a real person? Tick all that apply:

(a) Lady Chatterley (b) Lord Profumo (c) “Screaming” Lord Sutch, 3rd Lord of Harrow

How well did you do? (Check with Google. I’m not giving answers - it might encourage cheating.) Whatever the result, what conclusions could I make if you failed to answer all six questions correctly?

1 Your history teaching was woefully bad.

2 It’s a sign of “dumbing down”.

3 Trendy teaching methods caused you to be a “numbskull”.

4 None of these.

The correct answer is (4) None of these. It would be unreliable to make assertions about how you were taught history based on your performance in six questions chosen by me. They all relate to significant events so I could argue that knowledge of these is essential for understanding modern life. But my opinion of significant events may not chime with yours.

Of course, people need historical knowledge before they can understand events. But when Education Secretary Michael Gove berates teenagers for not knowing what he considers are basic historical facts then he is judging history education by the lowest common denominator: acquisition of facts alone.

Hector, the teacher in Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, speaks about the best moments in reading words from the past. He says,

“…it's as if a hand has come out, and taken yours. “

This is what history is, when someone long dead speaks to you as if in the same room. It’s when you read a soldier's letter from the front line after Ypres.  It’s when you struggle to transcribe the plea to Queen Mary from Elizabeth when she was suspected of treason. It’s when you study burial records and find the Parish Clerk wrote:

*1609 Nov 15 PARKS Henry “my son”.

This little entry tells in a few simple words the sorrow of a plague year.

Judging history teaching on how well pupils perform in a test of names and dates is crude. And when the test itself contains errors as did the one by UKTV Gold cited by Michael Gove then such simplistic conclusions deserve to be mocked.


*Entry in burial records for the village of Whiteparish, Wiltshire.

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