Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Do British Students Prefer the Wild West?

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!


Hermit said...

The reason why many students here in the UK know little of british hisory is because it's not offered to them, which is probably why there's more knowledge of American Wild West history, because they're more aware of it.
Schools here have the usual diet of Tudors and Nazis, with perhaps one or two other history periods thrown in if they're lucky. It's been like that in the state school system for decades.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I had a feeling there was a logical explanation. Thank you!

Tim Shey said...

I am an American and I have always enjoyed reading English/British history. England is the mother country. The history of England from the rise to power of Queen Elizabeth I till around 1700 is pivotal for the whole world. During that time you had the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), the English Civil, the English Bill of Rights and the Glorious Revolution. The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, I believe, greatly influenced the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution.

So British students enjoy American West history. Very interesting. I believe Hollywood may have some influence. American western films are pretty much uniquely American.

British history spans a long time. You could break it down to from the Roman Empire till the Norman Conquest; then you could go from the Norman Conquest till the defeat of the Spanish Armada (the beginning of worldwide English influence in the world); then you can study the British Empire from the Spanish Armada till 1945 when the Empire began to be broken up.

Someone told me that the original owners of the Union Pacific Railroad were English. This is why the trains go on the left tracks.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I agree--Hollywood may be an influence on this issue. However, it doesn't explain why so many students also chose to study Germany. I don't believe British students dislike the history of their country, I suspect it has more to do with the amount of work involved. It also just occurred to me that they may have chosen other countries to study because they already knew a great deal about the history of England and wanted to explore something different. Not necessarily more interesting or exciting, but different. I am fascinated by the history of England.

When I was in elementary school in the 1960s, the popular approach to
American history showed a direct, almost exclusive connection between England and the United States, completely excluding the French, Spanish, German, Irish and other influences. In college, I took a class on the American Military Experience, which really opened my eyes to the amount of influence from other countries. Living in the American Southwest, the Spanish and German influence become more obvious, particularly in California, New Mexico, and Texas. In Texas, my goodness, nearly every town has German or Irish origins. The English influence is practically non-existent.

Rob Lopez said...

Your diagnosis on chosen subjects sounds correct to me. The source material for the Old West is also extraordinarily dense, with fascinating facts. It's also a fact that by focussing just on the West you skip the wider political picture of the rest of America, which isn't as interesting to any pupil. Teaching British history of the same period seems to always involve government decisions - which is guaranteed to send any pupil to sleep.

I remember at school being hugely interested in WW2 - thanks to the comics I read. But the same subject in history seemed to involve a lot more politics and lot less cool airplanes and tanks! I skipped history as a result and chose Geography instead.

There is however another reason why, for instance, the Nazis are covered ad-nauseum, while British history is not, and that is down to the fads of our time. Britain, as a nation, barely existed before the 15th century. Modern Britain follows from there and its study would cover its rise from the English Civil war to the expansion of its overseas empire, culminating in its peak during the Victorian era, and perhaps its decline following WW1. That is the way it should be taught, but today we've become ashamed of empire and our past is seen as simply a catalogue of cruelty and domination of minority groups. The only thing my daughter learned about in this period was the slave trade and our contribution to it. Yes, it is a very left wing view, but it has become mainstream. My daughter never really learned why the slave trade existed or its older roots in history - just that it was beastly and we ought not to have done it. When I quizzed my daughter about her knowledge of the context of the time, she gave me a blank stare. She was not even aware that Britain had an empire during the period discussed. And history was her favourite subject!

In Britain today history is taught as a convenient morality tale, not as history. The Nazis provide useful fodder in this area too. My daughter learned how evil they were, how racist they were, how they tried to confine women in traditional positions in the home, etc. Again, no real context or understanding, nor comparisons with other governments of the time. Just the same simple message which, conveniently, chime with the latest ideological fashions. When she got to college she took history and was initially offered either the Nazis, again, or American history. But the college chose to drop American history and teach, surprise surprise, the Nazis again.

We have something of a Hitler obsession in this country at the moment. 70 years on we are still fighting fascism, though in the most simplistic manner possible.

Hermit said...

I remember having the same excitement of learning WW2 at school, thinking there'd be a focus on the battles, but being disappointed when there wasn't. I think if the option was given to boys at school to learn about that, then there'd be much more uptake of the lessons. History itself is punctuated by it's wars and the battles fought in them, where one tactical decision has changed the course of that history.

But history in UK schools is in a bit of a rut, because there isn't that excitement there. So it's no surprise that US wild west history is so appealing because, even though it was a short period in time, it has it's romanticism and adventure. As others have commented, this is due mostly to Hollywood, as well as some writers of the time who chronicled the actions of various characters, turning them into heroes that everyone wanted to read about. They didn't want to know the reality of it, which probably was far less exciting. Mainly because the readers didn't want truth, or reality, to spoil a damn good yarn! - lol!

So yes, the old wild west, with it's famous outlaws and gunslingers, will always have it's appeal until ways are found of teaching students other periods of history. I think TV programmes like "Horrible Histories" may have the answer. It's a kid's show that both children and adults like watching, and should really give a few pointers to educators as to how to teach history to kids.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I've never heard of Horribly Histories Hermit, but I found a website with games and it does look interesting and appealing. I've always believed history was exciting, and I think you've made a good point here--it is interesting, and should be presented as fun and exciting in the classroom in order to help children understand that studying history is fun. When you look at the history of England, and the history of the Old West, you can see so many different topics, different directions you can explore, which is what I believe Rob is saying, as well. If teachers present history in the context of what is going on in the world as a whole so students understand the bigger picture, they begin to understand that everything in life is interrelated, that we are all connected and they also begin to understand that they are a part of history. They can see the cause and effect, identify patterns, make connections in their own minds. It all comes down to the teachers and finding creative ways to make the subject appealing, and I do believe this is a responsibility of teachers. The job of a teacher is to help students make connections to themselves, to their own world, to their future.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I also want to add that I find it interesting that Rob brought up comic books as the catalyst that sparked his interest in history and Hermit discussed the Horrible Histories show and games. My daughter became interested in the Old West because her teacher introduced the students to a computer game where pioneers build a homestead. I think it's time to embrace technology, computers, games, understand that this is the future, the tools our children will be using to create their world, and encourage them to use these tools in their quest for knowledge.

Telehinco said...
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Hermit said...

Forgot to get back to you on this until now - sorry about that.

Horrible Histories atarted as a series of books, but it was the kid's TV show that really took off. I always thought it would be a good show for a US network to try their hand at, as I'm sure there are plenty of hidden gems in US history. There's a few sketches they did for the wild west. Here's one where Pearl Hart gets a mention (just ignore the excruciating american accents - lol!):

You'll find many more different ones on youtube. Even the cowboy song's on there!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

This is great! I think it's a wise move, too. Whatever it takes to keep kids interested in education!

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...