In the week beginning 30 June, the LBS team was joined by five Year 12 (17 year-old) students from City and Islington College in London as well as by a student who has just graduated from high school in New York. They all worked hard and asked many questions which challenge the way we view our own research. Here is their blog.
Studying A-level History
At college, we study A-level History which allows us to cover an array of topics in the modern period (19th and 20th centuries). We have previously learnt about the American civil rights movement (1945-68), the decline of Tsarism and rise of Bolshevism in Russia (1884-1924) and the development of nationalism in India under British rule (1900-47). While we found these subjects to be interesting, the course often lacked flexibility and creativity as it was naturally catered to a rigid exam structure with limited opportunity to expand beyond the narrow scope of questions. We found it disappointing that a year’s worth of learning was condensed into about two and a half hours of exam time, with much of the course not even referred to. Of course we cannot radically reverse the exam system and study whatever we choose, but the way we currently learn is too confined.
To improve the way history is taught at this level, we feel that there should be greater use of independent and group research projects, debates, critical discussions and presentations. There should also be a greater emphasis on wider reading and more guidance into how to improve our understanding of historical matters. We were given plenty of resources such as reading lists and access to presentations on Moodle, but we would like to see the inclusion of more primary sources through visits to archives and so on. We found ourselves relying too much on the textbooks provided as they strictly adhered to the syllabus and thus felt that they were our best chance at securing a strong grade. Although we cannot escape the inevitability of exams, they allow little room for us to properly express reasoned judgement on historical controversies because of time constraints. Furthermore, many question the value of history today and believe it to be a subject that consists of nothing more than studying the dead and slogging through dusty books. To tackle this apathy, we want to see more lessons on the relevance of what we learn in history and how it relates to or affects modern society. For example, we can explicitly link the plight of the civil rights movement in the mid 20th century to current racial tensions or pressure group activity.
Our experience with the LBS project and thoughts on how the subject of slavery should be taught
During the week, our role involved developing profiles on individual slave-owners in the Caribbean, absentee owners in Britain and others involved in the system to the LBS database. We obtained information primarily from a text entitled Jamaica Plantership by Benjamin McMahon – an Irish soldier who moved to Jamaica in search of new opportunities in 1819. He primarily worked as an overseer and a book-keeper on a variety of plantations on the island, later recording his experiences of his eighteen years there. As well as reading his work, we also made use of archival evidence, censuses, slave registers and geo-referencing with maps. In addition, we visited various sites around London relating to slavery and its legacies including former slave-owners’ houses around the Bloomsbury area, the Senate House library (where we read letters from Thomas Lane – an absentee planter), the Hackney library archives and the Museum of London Docklands.
Not only have we contributed to a public historical resource, we have improved our knowledge of this period of controversial history. It is this controversy that has made us consider how the subject of slavery should be taught to young people of all ages. Slavery is naturally an uncomfortable topic for many; however, we feel that it is not something that should be avoided or shied away from because of its incredible impact and significance that still resonates today. We should address the subject face on in a meaningful way that doesn’t overlook the horrors of slavery and Britain’s involvement, but also explores the motives and attitudes of individual slave-owners. This investigation will allow for meaningful critical discussion of the history of the slavery system.
Many features of transatlantic slavery go unnoticed by a lot of people. For example, we were surprised to learn that the largest number of enslaved Africans were in fact sent to Brazil by the Portuguese, contrary to our belief that North America was the main destination. We were also unaware of how slavery was intertwined with the development of Britain as a nation and how its legacies, whether they be commercial, political, cultural and imperial, can be recognised today. As we understand, this is what the LBS project seeks to highlight.
by Robert, Hannah, Ogo, Simone, David and Molly
(We are all grateful for this opportunity to be involved in the LBS project and would like to thank Rachel Lang for all her support and information provided throughout this experience. We would also like to thank Kristy, Nick, Keith, Hannah and Cari for running very interesting and engaging sessions throughout this week.)