According to a recent news article in the United Kingdom's Independent, British Education Secretary Michael Gove expressed concern over the fact that students preparing for their GCSEs in British secondary schools in 2011 knew more about the American Wild West than their own country's history. Gove equated this with a lack of pride in their country's history.
According to the article, of the 40% of students who chose to study history, only 8% chose British history, 48% chose the American West and 40% chose to study Germany leading up to, and during, World War II.
Of course, it is difficult to speculate on the real reasons for this interest without actually interviewing the students. One might originally suspect, considering the time periods involved, that students would choose Germany and the American Old West because they cover relatively short time periods, and if there is one thing young students love, it's short cuts.
The German studies section covered the years between 1919 and 1945, or 26 years. These were vitally important years when trying to understand the causes of World War II, but the point I'm trying to make is, there are relatively few years compared to British history. The study of human history in the British Isles could conceivably begin with the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic Periods.
However, since this is a blog on the American Wild West, let's take a look at that time period, since it was also favored by British students. The time period of the American Old West, or Wild West, stretches from the early 1800s to the 1920s, or roughly 100 years. Compared to the thousands of years in the study of British history, it's understandable why any young student would eagerly choose the American Old West!
I like to think there would be a bit more to these decisions, though. When I have studied British history in the past, I've found that teachers tend to focus on politics, religion and economics. In British history, these three topics are woven together as tight as the braided mane of a rodeo pony.
In studies of the American Old West, though, the focus is on exploration into unknown territories. The focus is on transportation, such as stagecoaches and railroads. The focus is on exciting personalities, like Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, Daniel Boone, Stephen Austin and Sam Houston.
The focus is on slavery, Abraham Lincoln, and the American Civil War, which would include the causes leading up to this horrific tragedy. The war only lasted from 1861 to 1865, but during that time, 620,000 Americans died, and 400,000 of these deaths were caused by disease!
Studies of the American Old West may cover a short period of time, but a tremendous amount of excitement as Europeans explored the New World and clashed with its original inhabitants, the warriors of the Sioux, Apache, Comanche, Pawnee, and Cherokee. The Comanche were particularly troublesome to western pioneers, especially in Texas where the Texas Rangers served their time during the Civil War protecting homesteaders.
American Old West studies might also include stories of buffalo herds so vast that they sometimes kept trains waiting on the tracks three days before they completely crossed over, animals that quickly disappeared from the American landscape due to extermination orders issued by the American government in an effort to control the warriors mentioned above.
It could include discussions of pronghorn antelope, the fastest mammals in North America, once ranging as far, and living in herds as numerous as the buffalo. The mighty elk, the proud Bald Eagle, the mysterious California Condor.
There is so much about the American Old West that continues to attract Americans of all ages to a lifetime of study. I suspect that British students are fascinated by the American Old West because studies of this time period include exciting events, people, and inventions that changed the world...all in a relatively short period of time!