Telling stories and spending time

ONCE upon a time, on an uninhabited island on the shores of the Red Sea, there lived a Parsee from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour. And the Parsee lived by the Red Sea with nothing but his hat and his knife and a cooking-stove of the kind that you must particularly never touch.
Kipling, How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin

On a winter night in 1692, a company of soldiers quartered with the MacDonalds of Glencoe rose early and slaughtered their hosts. About 38 men, women and children were killed. Their homes were torched and many survivors died as they fled into the snow.
The Glencoe Massacre, In Our Time


On one of our snow days, my paperwork done or undone but also not doing, I listened to the In Our Time podcast on the massacre at Glencoe in Scotland. I knew a little going in - something of the joining of the kingdoms under James, the loss of the kingdoms by James II to William of Orange, and what that meant for Catholics on the isle.

But I was new to Glencoe, and so I listened to the 45 minute program twice through, and then used Google to find maps and images of the valley. And well, that was it. I'll probably listen again some day soon. I don't know the story well enough yet to tell it - at least, not in any setting where people are allowed to ask me questions.


Our 9-foot time-line sits empty and unused on the wall. But one of my learners started making a smaller one at her seat. I say "smaller" because she was using two lengths of 14" paper. But, in fact, it was a 'bigger' time-line in the sense that she was hoping to capture 5000 years. Mostly, she wanted a way to identify and order the high points as seen by conventional Western histories: the great wall of China; Egypt's pyramids; the Viking raids on Europe and North America; the time of knights and castles; the Roman empire; Greek maths and science; Galileo and modern astronomy; Columbus and the New World....

Obviously, the scale she used wouldn't invite precision. With 80cm of paper, she was forced to cram each 1000 year block into 16cm. Still, it worked as a kind of visual aid, allowing her to see the chronological order of the major events and cultures.

The most striking thing we learned was that, using her scale map of time, the height of the age of dinosaurs was located 25.6 km to the east of us.

History is a big place.


How do I... ? He stopped there, but I knew was he was asking. So did everyone else at the table. He... they... were asking how to cram years of learning history into a handful of months, into 6 to 8 weeks.

I was telling them the story of Alexander, you see. Enjoying the penultimate bit where he reaches the River Jhelum, a tributary of the River Indus, and fights a battle in a thunder storm against troops mounted on war elephants. I drew whiteboard maps and pictures while I talked, and used the world map on the wall to show the extent of his domination.

The day before, I'd told them stories of Julius Caesar, stumbling at bit during his campaigns in Gaul, but picking up ground with the Cleopatra affair and the dark end in Rome. (Thank goodness for movies!) And the day before that - and this isn't quite as odd as you might think - I'd told Kipling's story of how the rhinoceros got his skin. (Someone was confusing the Black Sea with the Red Sea and another was asking where Parsees came from and a third, reading about Gandhi, had been asking about Britain's rule over India - all of which made Kipling seem like the natural place to start. Yes, his stories are racist, imperialist and untrue, but they are also imaginative in the strict sense - and imagery is what they most need to grasp historical geography.)

If I had a single-subject class, and I wasn't helping people with math - what greater joy than helping people with math! - I would certainly be helping them with history and political economy.

Still, the question stood. Apart from my narrations - performed twice daily like a carnival sideshow - how were they to learn history. There was no point in saying how I had learned. I had learned by reading everything, beginning with Henty's Among Malay Pirates, which I read when I was nine and didn't know where Malaysia was, and The Great War, a thick book from the twenties filled with black and white photographs and no awareness that a second world war was about to break out. I read and I read and I read. Of course, I also watched movies and cartoons and documentaries. Later - by my teens - I took advantage of radio programs giving the background to certain events. The point is, I spent years learning.

My learners don't have years.

Another point worth making is that I can't recall learning history in school. This seems odd, and I swear I'm not being churlish here. Sure, I don't much like schools, but I'll freely admit that I encountered literature there, learned to paint and take better photos, and how to wire up a doorbell. But I can't remember learning much history there. I remember the filmstrips and old movies, and I can picture some of the textbooks in my head. But the only history I can recall learning is art history - the names and places and styles of art through the ages which I studied in high school.

It could be that I was just a lousy, day-dreaming, know-it-all student. But what if it turns out that, for some strange reason, a classroom is the worst place to learn history?

What then?

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