Learning to learn history

Preparing the First Year history lesson for tomorrow, I wistfully perused the material for the lessons. I wish there had been such resources when I was at school.

Before they even begin to look at historical materials, the First Year students are taught about sources, about asking questions, about looking at evidence. They are enthusiastic in their responses.

The focus of the course is on skills as well as knowledge, on making history a lifelong activity. There is the cultivation of an awareness that history is to be found in their own area as well as in distant locations. It took me half of my life to learn what they are learning in the opening weeks of first year.

Working in an Ulster parish south of Downpatrick, a parish with traditions that dated from the days of Saint Patrick, there was an anniversary festival in 1995 which included a bus tour of the parish.

The bus tour was not for outsiders, but for the parishioners themselves. An archaeologist from Queen’s University was numbered among the people of the parish and was our guide for the tour. An Ulsterbus was hired and, at the most distant point, from where we started we must have been three miles from where we had begun.

What had seemed a piece of silliness when it was planned, became an experience people were to remember. Each pile of stones, each fold in the hill, each grassy mound suddenly assumed an identity of their own.

Standing at the gate of a field, in which a single wall standing alone was all that remained of a medieval building, the archaeologist described the digs that had taken place there and how what was found told the story of the everyday lives of the people who had lived there. There had been laughter when he had talked about the excavation of what had once been the cess pit of the medieval house and had commented that it was amazing what people dropped when they were going to the toilet.  A place that had been passed by many people everyday became more than just a stone wall in a meadow.

It is unlikely that a professional historian or archaeologist will emerge from among the First Year students, such talents are few and far between, but if the lessons should prompt their adult selves to pause and to see the past around, then the course will have been a success.



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