Friday 17 August 2018

School history teaching about Albion should start with the Mesolithic

A rare surviving photograph of some druids emerging from the ancient mist

I was reading a (somewhat jokey, but actually serious) little essay by John Michell saying that modern school history teaching was made dull and inadequate by its avoidance of the great span of years before the Romans - and recalling that there used to be a great deal of vivid information taught about the Ancient British which is now left-out.

Michell was, without naming him, clearly discussing Geoffrey of Monmouth's book about the Ancient British Kings, which for several hundred years was something all educated people would know. Geoffrey's account goes right back to the discovery of Britain by Brutus the Trojan, when the land was won from the giants or titans who inhabited it - and there is a list of King (some with detailed biographies) from this point.

But I think he was correct - and I see many good reasons why British children should be taught their history right back to the Mesolithic hunter gatherers of the post-ice age (about 12 000 years ago). Plenty of interesting stuff can be inferred about such people - not just from the (scant) archaeology and understanding of climate, flora and fauna - but by comparison with the detailed knowledge of hunter gatherers in similar situations elsewhere in the world. Presumably these Mesolithic Men were either ruled-by or preyed-upon by the resident giants...

Then comes the Neolithic - with more archaeology but also more scope for reasonable and plausible inferences about the advent of agriculture - herding, then planting; and the role of their religion with its underground tombs, hilltop temples, ceremonial paths and - in general - vast sacred landscape.

At this time Britain - at least the southern parts - was probably like Ancient Egypt - highly organised, stable, peaceful, intellectual - and, I think, literate. It is hard to imagine how else such a complex society could have been administered, and over dozens of generations. There are plenty of complex, symbolic rock markings from this era, although there is no recognised archaeological evidence for written communication, yet.

The so-called Bronze age was not distinct - but divides into an early part that was an extension of the Neolithic; and a later part that was culturally like the Iron Age. Bronze itself made Britain central to Europe - because Cornwall was one of only a couple of sources for the tin required to make it; and there were enormous copper mines in Wales that were exporting all over the place.

From the late Bronze Age (including Stonehenge) Britain was a kind of post-apocalyptic world, where the high civilisation, literacy and national peace of the Neolithic collapsed - to leave small, warring tribes. Human sacrifice was almost certainly a major feature of their religion. However, this developed into the age of the druids - who perhaps were a remnant of the Neolithic priesthood; and a time when England became famous as the centre of druidical colleges.

This was also the era when recorded history begins to overlap with myth - as Julius Caesar made the first Roman attempt to conquer the Island. And thus we join-up to the standard curriculum; not forgetting the narrative of the young Jesus visiting Somerset and Cornwall and his uncle Joseph (of Arimathea) later building the very first Christian church in the world, in Glastonbury. And the later activities of Arthur and Merlin...

The point is that the supposed facts of archaeology and science (which are changeable, anyway) are regarded only as a basis or framework for intuitive imagination; to bring the past to life for children by vivid pictures and stories of 'what it was like' to live in those very different times; when people had very different priorities and interests.

The stories need to be plausible and coherent - and they need to be linked to some vision of national purpose - if so, then such a history is 'our' history, personally relevant - and perhaps inspiring.   

History, to be valuable, must be a story; and to be memorable a story must be engaging. The imagination comes first, not as a bolt-on optional extra. As such - this kind of history could, and should, be at the centre of all education.


Seijio Arakawa said...

Of course this assumes that Albion would have a school curriculum... probable, but not clear.

It's obvious that public schools as they are now are primarily a means for injecting the Ahrimanic virus at a young age (to 'teach them to live in the real world') and preventing children from interacting outside their narrow age-group. Because history has many more unanswered questions than answered ones, an accurate presentation of historical knowledge in schools is actually impossible -- to honestly draw attention to how much scientific study of the past doesn't tell us would undermine the intended (underlying) message that the System is omniscient and the official reality is authoritative and singular. Conjectures and guesses about the past are experienced as 'authoritative' anthropology, whereas they are really imaginative interpretations of the evidence that happen to fit with the current society's underlying worldview.

It's far more likely that, if schooling has a good future, it will be far more similar to a group of homeschooling families who pool their resources. There may be common books used across a nation, and thence there may be a sort of common curriculum. But the nature of the schooling medium has to change significantly in order for the messages to be delivered in a way that leaves room for imagination.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seijio - 'Schooling' here is a 'conceit' for discussing the issue - nothing more.

Chiu ChunLing said...

For all the dangers of resorting to mere factuality, it has one great strength. It provides grounds for rejection of many fables entirely inimical to truth.

And a general national curriculum administered by government authority is almost certain to be motivated by the desire to exterminate truth rather than promote it.

Bruce Charlton said...

One problem is that prehistory has been taken over by archaeologists - at the professional level.

I'm very keen on archaeology - but the archaeologists are a depressingly nihilistic bunch of people; who seem almost to have crushed their own imaginative capacities - perhaps because they are such materialists.

They are aware that Men of the remote past lived in a very different consciousness, lived indeed in a highly spiritual world (in complete contrast to the old idea of them being wholly obsessed with subsistence and survival) - but they consign this to the vast category of 'ritual' - about which they assert nothing can, or should!, be said.

Yet without theories of the content and purpose of ritual, nothing makes any sense beyond the level of simple functionality of minor activities (this kind of flint flake was used to scrape bones...).

Therefore, mainstream archaeology needs to be supplemented with what might be termed a philological approach, back-extrapolations and inferences about roots, from later literary historical documents (Tolkien did this, professionaly; and I recently read a book by Nikolai Tolstoy which did this for Stonehenge).

And supplemented by the sheer imaginative intuitions of those who are immersed in the subject. That leads to mostly neo-pagans of a New Age type - like Julian Cope (The Modern Antiquarian)... who had done some very valuable work in this way; but then we get to the pervasive New Age 'anything-but-Christianity' bias...

So, since Christianity happens to be True, there is plenty of work yet to do!

Unknown said...

I am a home educator. I am preparing to teach the history and geography of Britain. I use stories to engage my children in the material we cover. Please recommend some quality resources for me to use to cover ancient British history. Thank you for the post and the website.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CH - Two I would reccomend would be Geoffrey Ashe's Mythology of the British Isles; and John Michell's Traveller's Guide to Sacred England. Good luck!