Historically, Truth Matters

It is quite predictable that, having stated in a blog post that I intend to blog twice a week I would then not find the time for three weeks to write anything. This is in part due to it being January, which is an impossibly busy month, but also to the fact that I try so very hard not to be perpetually grumpy on this blog. My last post was grumpy, so I thought this one should be playful, or whimsical, or hopeful, or hilarious, or at least realtively sanguine. But it is not to be, for I have been occupied with History Day. 

Be not fooled into thinking that I have anything against history — Mrs S is twenty kinds of nerd, and History Nerd is one of them — or that I object to my children learning history in school. I encourage it. I would have been thrilled to my clumsy, nerdy toes to have had a history day in school when I was growing up. Come to school dressed up, spend the day learning about what life was like in another time: what could be better? So when we had a notice home telling us about history day, and that C’s class would be focusing on medieval times, and R’s class would be studying ancient Egypt, I started planning. 

That letter home should have been the first warning that all was not as it seemed, for it suggested that the girls in C’s class of four and five year olds may want to dress like this:


Int he market for 18th century garb? This image is from jarnaginco.com.

Historical this style may be, but it is from a different era: the 18th century. You may at this point be taking umbrage at the perceived insinuation that you should have known this. Rest assured I do not expect everyone to be able to identify historical fashions to the nearest century, but I do expect those teaching history to my children to correctly match the wardrobe with the era they are teaching. The most basic internet image search will furnish you with dozens of pictures of medieval dress. How about this?

If you would like to have a beautiful costume such as this, visit http://www.revivalclothing.com

Or, if you want something more fanciful and regal:

Or more authentic still:

The point is: long, rather unstuctured gowns, a veil or very simple cap (but not a mobcap) perhaps a sincture at the waist, and you become a medieval lady. The argument from the school, had I raised the issue, might have been that they were going for something simple, that most students could manage. But medieval doesn’t need to be difficult: a tunic or nightgown from mom or a big sister (safety pins at the neck and sleeves as needed for fit), a cord as a sincture at the waist, and a scarf pinned to the hair as a veil and presto! Add cape if desired. 

So, ignoring the misguided advice of the school, I set to work making C a medieval gown. (R was more or less abandoned at this point. I ordered him a cheap pharaoh costume online. Obviously this displays great favouritism, and I explain it thus: I only had time to make one costume. I have two little girls who like to dress up, so a medieval lady costume will get much more use than a pharaoh costume.) I have precisely two domestic skills: I can cook and I can sew. I did, however, discover, while sewing a six-panelled gown by hand, that it is just possible to be too medival. (I ordered a sewing machine this week in preparation for next time.) But after two weeks of pricked fingers and a few glaring mistakes, C had a gown fit for a fourteenth century princess:   


Obviously sharing this image is somewhat boastful: look at me! I can sew! (Assuming you ignore the scruffiness of the hem, visible in this picture: C was adament about having a train and I was improvising.) But that is not actually the point. I am trying to zero in on the level of historical accuracy I expect from a history day. I chose a wildly anachronistic fabric. Metallic gold brocade? Nope. Not medieval. But the shape and feel are right, and it is shiny and fun, so clearly I can temper my grumpy pedantry from time to time. If I hadn’t been looking for an excuse to start sewing again, or if I hadn’t thought this dress would get a lot of wear as dress up, I would have put C in one of my long tunic-type shirts as described above and been done with it.

We arrived at history day (parents were invited to stay for the morning in the Early Years classes), where all the boys were dressed as knights and most of the girls were dressed as 18th century housemaids, and were introduced to a variety of activities to teach us about medieval times. We could paint a coat of arms on a shield. We could decorate a plastic gobelet with coloured sharpe markers to have at the snacktime medieval banquet of bread, butter, apples and “wine”. We could practice juggling with beanbags like a court jester. All of these sounded great: little lessons to be had, but appropriate for four and five year olds, and fun. But wait, there’s more…

We were invited to make little pouches of potpourri. Now, if you were going to explain to a group of four and five year olds what potpourri had to do with the middle ages would you tell them 

(A) People in the middle ages might have wanted a pouch of potpourri to sniff because there were no toilets and people threw their waste into the streets, animals were everywhere, there was no rubbish collection, no refrigeration, and many people believed that the foul odours of everyday life, called miasma, were what made people sick, so if you had something nice to smell it would not only make walking through town bearable, but you believed you might avoid sickness.


(B) People in medieval times never took baths. They also never ever washed their clothes, and they never took their clothes off no matter how smelly or dirty they got because being naked was sinful. So they needed potpourri because everybody stank and without it they couldn’t have stood to be around eachother.

If you said (B), congratualtions! Give yourself five points, a cookie, a bit of extra deoderant, and a diploma certifying you to be a Tudor PR agent or a primary school history teacher, whichever you prefer. If you said (A), bad luck. You may console yourself with a self-righteous blogpost so that everyone knows how much more you know about history than anyone else in the known universe.

Additionally, we were invited to do some medieval dancing. Huzzah! Now, if you were teaching five year olds about medieval dancing would you:

  • (A) Tell the children that medieval dancing was very slow and boring, and that they would have hated it because there are lots of rules and it isn’t fun like dancing is now.
  • (B) Say that medieval dancing was always very serious and no one was allowed to smile.
  • (C) Say that medieval people only danced to songs in 4:4 time.
  • (D) Say “Let’s dance to a medieval song!” and then teach a dance to Greensleeves, a Rennaissance song in 3:4 time.
  • (E) All of the above.

Full marks will only be awarded for (E). Marks will be deducted if you decide to loudly count out the 3:4 beat to “help” the children (and perhaps to make a point), but they will be restored if you remember just in time that, no matter the absurdity of the exercise, good manners are fitting in any age. 

I can hear the shrieks of anger from the primary school teachers even as I type this: “You have no idea how hard it is to plan an activity day like this! You have no idea how much work it is! We use resource guides! We’re not historians!” Followed swiftly by “So there are a few details they got wrong. So what? The kids are five. They’re not even going to remember.” This will not do. First of all, I do know how much work goes into planning a History Day. Second, I know teachers draw heavily on teaching resources, which may themselves be inaccurate. Maybe my exasperation should be directed towards the author of a sub-standard teaching manual, or towards whoever taught this unfortunate teacher that all medieval people were dirty, dour, prudish savages. I am not denying that the children had fun, or saying that days like this aren’t a great addition to school learning. But there’s no point in teaching something that isn’t true, even if it’s fun. In fact, there is every reason not to teach falsehood. If you learn something that’s not true, it’s not real learning: it’s just setting up a mental stumbling block that could trip you up at any point in the future.

And five year olds do remember. If we don’t expect them to absorb what they learn at five, why are we teaching them to read and write and count? Even if a five year old doesn’t remember every fact he learns, what you teach him will create an impression, and that will stick with him. Tell him that medieval people smelt worse than he could possibly imagine and you create the impression that these people knew nothing, and were too lazy and disgusting to bother with basic self-care. He might return to history to be shocked and amused by how gross and ignorant everyone was back then, but you’re already fermenting trouble for the future, should it be suggested that he could learn something of value from studying the middle ages. If you set up the contrast of the fun, sweet-smelling modern times versus the boring, revolting medieval times, you strip away the value of studying history. In a short twleve years that five year old child could be informing his Intro to Philosophy prof that there’s no point in studying Plato or Aristotle, or even Aquinas or Descartes, Kant or Kierkegaard, because those are all dead white guys who lived a long time ago and “humans have moved on,” so he won’t be doing those pointless assigned readings. (True story.) 

I know that kids think gross history is fun. Horrible Histories, a UK series of books and TV shows aimed at kids, trades on this, and mostly does a brilliant job. There is a whole sketch in which the unwashed peasants of the dark ages exchange buckets of pig manure for Christmas, but by the end of the scene you have a pretty good idea about why poop was so important to peasant farmers. Behind the deliberately hammy horror, there’s a sort of reverence (but by no means a preachiness) for history. Pig poop is funny. There’s no arguing against that. But isn’t if fascinating the use farmers did, and do, make of it? By all means gross kids out, but not to make historical figures seem like the dregs of some revolting carnival freak show. The aim should be to turn them into scholars, not voyeurs. Five year olds are plenty old enough for a simple explanation of why things were different back then. What they are not old enough for is sneaky Hegelianism that subtly assures them that their age is a pinnacle of some historical destiny, and that they may sneer at all who went before. True, what happened back then was not always good, and we hopefully know better now. But it is hard to even take the transgressions of the past seriously if we’ve decided their perpetrators were buffons. In another ten years these five year olds should be having a good think about how people not unlike themselves became the authors of such atrocities as slavery and the Holocaust (those are the two that still make it onto school syllabi, afterall), and it is short-sighted to set up the kind of thinking that says “People used to do bad things because they were stupid, but I am an enlightened modern person and therefore not suceptible to such errors.” 

I read somewhere — perhaps some knowledgeable reader may provide the citation that eludes me — that the study of history consists of being taught that things were a certain way, only to be told the next year that ‘Actually, you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’ But it’s a lot easier to build upon and give nuance to a basic view of history that is at least arguably true, and it’s a lot easier to teach a student who has learnt to take a genuine  interst in what people did in the past. So, even if it’s just a history day for five year olds, let’s start by getting the information right. Do it because you care about truth, or do it to avoid angry rants from disgruntled former-academic classroom parents, or, if you must, do it to avoid returning to the Dark Ages, when ignorance stalked the land like a living pestilence… Actually, I’ll have to ask you to stop right there. But that is a topic for another day.

It All Adds Up

  Mrs S married Mr S primarily for his mathematical abilities.  So many people focus on emotional compatibility, or shared interests, or looks, or wealth. Mrs S was mostly thinking about the children’s homework. When they met on the platform of Shadwell station in south London, on the 31st May, 2003, Mrs S noticed Mr S’s rower’s physique right away, but it wasn’t until she found out about the Cambridge maths degree and masters in particle physics that she started to take him seriously. You see, Mrs S crashed out of math in high school as soon as quadratic equations came up. Could there be a more pointless form of torture? She felt betrayed by imaginary numbers, as most of the numbers she’d been using in math since about eighth grade had been imaginary, and she thought it was unsporting to introduce rules about how and when she was allowed to use them. It was her imagination, wasn’t it?  Apparently not. So, after scraping an unimpressive C in Algebra 2, Mrs S dropped math, and was so happy to do so that she was only mildly offended by the fact that her Algebra teacher was also exultant. Tactless, that. The only pang of regret Mrs S ever felt was five years later, sitting her GREs (standardised graduate school aptitude tests) when it took her six consecutive questions to remember what to do with negative exponents. This wouldn’t have been a problem were it not for the fact that the test was set in a computer format that didn’t allow you to go back to change your answers, and selected your next question based on your performance thus far. So once it was revealed that Mrs S’s knowledge of negative exponents would require a negative exponent to accurately quantify, she was doomed to have no other type of question ever again. But even these pangs were shortlived, as it turns out PhD programs in philosophy, even good ones, don’t care all that much about mathematical aptitude if you have good scores in verbal reasoning and logic. 

 So, since she was fifteen, Mrs S had known that if there was to be any mathematical talent in her future family, she would have to marry it. The education of her future children depended on it. After they finish fractions, decimals and basic geometry Mrs S will be useless at helping with math homework, after all. This is what made Mr S such a perfect prospect. And before you start feeling too sorry for him, you should also know that he is of such a disposition that, far from being disappointed or insulted, having a woman fall for him because of his numerical brilliance was likely the fulfillment of a youthful fantasy…or would have been if he were given to fantasies. But despite his wife’s lack of numerical comprehension Mr S does fine out of the deal, really, at least Mrs S thinks so: she does cook nearly every night.  (On the downside, Mr S is continually annoyed by Mrs S’s failure to say “maths,” as he thinks is proper, but Mrs S maintains that as she has nightmares about math, then the pluralisation of her nemesis would only make matters worse.)

Now, twelve years after that fateful meeting in Shadwell, and nine years after they were married, Mr and Mrs S have three children. At two, four and six, they are obviously much too young to be bringing home anything so frightening as algebra (Mrs S avoids even contemplating the eventuality of calculus), but Mrs S is already relieved that she can pass off anything complex and numerical to her husband. R, the eldest, is only six, but it is already obvious that he has his father’s mathy streak.  He sometimes asks for daddy to teach him “some fun, really hard maths” instead of having a bedtime story, which is all the more surprising because he loves books. 

The only issue there has been with R’s math progress to date is that he is skeptical of his need to memorise his math facts because he is “really good at estimating.” The problem Mrs S has found with winning this argument is that R isn’t wrong: he is excellent at estimating. Of course, in primary school they expect precision. It doesn’t matter if R can tell instantly that 23+46 is about 70 if he stubbornly refuses to memorise 8+5=13. Nonetheless, he enjoys learning math with his father. His retention isn’t perfect, but he does follow as it’s being explained to him. They’ve covered fractions, percentages, basic statistics, square and triangular numbers, simple geometry like perimeter and area, and different strategies for adding and subtracting large numbers. These topics are by no means beyond Mrs S’s abilities, but given that R is only six, and things can only get more difficult, Mrs S is very relieved that she snagged a mathematical husband.

C, aged four, is a different beast all together. She usually remembers that 20 comes after 19, but occasionally she still thinks it’s 19, 91, 92, 93… Sometimes she understands how to add one.  And sometimes she doesn’t. Mrs S taught her to add up on her fingers, which worked until they got to five plus one:


 “Hold up five fingers. Now hold up one more. How many do you have?”


“No, count ALL your fingers.”


“No, sorry: count the five fingers and the extra one.  How many?”

With furrowed brow, C looked at her hands, counted the five fingers on one hand, then looked at the single finger on the other hand.  “One.” she said again. 

Mrs S smiled and managed not to laugh.  She didn’t want C to think she was making fun of her when all she was doing was remembering.  “We’ll do some more math after lunch,” she promised, speculating that they might have better luck with counting beads or beans than fingers.  

Lunch was leftover pasta, and Mrs S put it into the microwave to warm up and went to grate some fresh cheese.  Suddenly C was very upset:

“Mommy! Mommy! The microwave is broken! The numbers are going backwards!” 

Mrs S glanced over just to make sure that was the only purported problem with the appliance. “They always go backwards. When they get to zero it will beep,” she assured her daughter.

“But they’re counting all wrong!” C cried indignantly.

“No, they’re just counting down. You learned to do that in school. Remember?” Mrs S said.

C sighed and nodded. “Yes, but I thought it was ridiculous.”

Mrs S was once again incredibly grateful for her husband, because someday someone might have to explain negative exponents to C, and it certainly isn’t going to be Mrs S.