A few months ago at the West London Free School I was in the audience when historian Robert Tombs gave his lecture on ‘Why teach your own country’s history?’ In a speech full of knowledge, wisdom, poetry and passion, Tombs illustrated the way personal history fits into a country’s by describing individuals as ‘being trees in a forest.’ Later in the lecture he expressed his bemusement at the formulaic, repetitive style in which many undergraduates write and asked the question “who teaches them to write like this?’
The answer was, as I’m sure he was quite aware, we do. We teach our students ‘on the one hand, on the other.’ We teach them the formulaic application of ‘additionally’, ‘moreover’, and ‘furthermore’, that a description means five points and a good explanation means giving three reasons. Of course, when college places and life opportunities depend on exam grades, we should be forgiven for doing so. Exam board rubrics and mark schemes mean that there are good reasons we teach children to write in this ugly fashion, especially when there is no extra credit for writing about trees or forests, regardless of how much more beautiful and illuminating such a passage might be.
I am, of course, far from the first person to point out that this is a real shame. Jim Carroll and Lee Donaghy have done a great deal of meaningful work on how to genuinely improve historical writing and I’ve found Rachel Foster’s work on exposing students to real scholarship helpful in showing children how to more elegantly express complicated ideas. I’ve also got great hope that, before too long, Daisy Christodoulou’s work developing and advocating comparative judgement might mean that more imaginative, graceful answers get the credit they deserve.
Breaking free of the shackles of descriptor statements opens up a more nuanced discussion as to what good historical writing actually is. For me, one hallmark is the sophisticated and original use of analogy, metaphor and simile. These, of course beautiful in themselves, demonstrate deep understanding of what is being compared and serve as useful shortcuts – we understand something new better if its similarities to something with which we are comfortable are made explicit. Analogies, metaphors and similes can act as bridges between the familiar and the new. Tombs’ passage about trees in a forest is so apt and compelling because we all have a clear vision of it, which makes the point he’s making clearer to those of us who might not have considered the issue as carefully as he has.
With the explicit aim of getting my classes to write more beautifully, I’ve been thinking about ways in which I can build the capacity of my students to effectively use analogy, metaphor and simile in their work.
- Use them when explaining
Students are more likely to write allegorically if we use analogy, metaphor and simile in our own explanations. Of course, this will fall flat if our own examples are clichéd or clunky, so I think it is important to spend time thinking and developing them. While planning a recent sequence of lessons I spent a long time trying to find a good analogy for the Vikings who so regularly raided England in the early medieval period. The first one I came up with was ‘vultures’, but I rejected it because vultures only prey on the dead and dying. I then thought of ‘hyenas’ which I found unsatisfactory because these animals are so far geographically removed from Europe that the image became distracting. In the end I settled on ‘wolves’ as I felt this reflected the way in which Vikings sensed weakness and hunted in groups. Using this analogy meant explaining pack hunting tactics to my class, which leads to my second point.
- Develop large schemas.
This is fairly straightforward. If we want students to be able to make allegorical connections between disparate events and themes they must know a lot. If they don’t know much, the events they study will flap meaninglessly in the wind. To build these large schemas a rigorous knowledge based curriculum is necessary with plenty of wider reading to support it. In addition, we shouldn’t be scared to move away from the subject we are teaching if we feel developing an analogy makes this worthwhile. At the beginning of last term I spent half a lesson teaching Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandius’ to a Year 8 class in order to demonstrate why having a son to pass his legacy to might have been so important to Henry VIII. It was definitely worth it. While not all students used the poem directly in their exams (some did though), almost all used the word legacy in a way that showed they had a real appreciation as to why Henry may have become so set on his divorce of Catherine of Aragon.
Schemas can also be developed by exposing children to proper historical scholarship. To do this, while not wanting to appear a kill-joy, I’ve been weaning my students off “Horrible Histories’ and other similar books, and onto extracts from broadsheet newspapers and accessible historical scholarship such as Schama and Marc Morris.
- Make it clear allegorical writing is prized.
I don’t yet have a visualizer so to do this I read particularly apt comparisons out, and then we unpick. We spend time on each image and explain why the connection between them has value, before encouraging students to make different comparisons, which the class will critique. This, as well as giving us all a good laugh every now and again, allows us to minimise the silly, facile and clumsily obvious.
The work does seem to be paying off. I am seeing encouraging signs. Students are trying. Some of their attempts are clunky and some are, occasionally, hysterically inept, but the odd gem is emerging. Marking a recent Year 11 essay I saw Oliver Cromwell’s massacre of Drogheda referred to, concisely and confidently, as “part of Cromwell’s bloody victory tour of Ireland”, which, I’m sure, had come out of a discussion we’d had about Leicester City’s open-topped bus parade around the city centre. I was, with no analogy, metaphor or simile, quite thrilled. I hope Professor Tombs would be too.