A trip to America and two conversations about interpretations: objects not extracts.

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While I could do without the jet-lag, one of the things I like best about my school’s trip to Washington and New York for our A Level students of History and Politics is that it often opens up opportunities for conversations we might not otherwise have the time to have. Sometimes these conversations can be a little bit controversial, especially when they take place in the Gettysburg gift shop.

To put this in context, most of the 30 sixth formers who were along for the ride were studying both US Politics at A Level, and were in the process of completing a piece of coursework that focused on the American Civil Rights Movement. They had also just come from a fantastic session on that history at the Washington headquarters of the NAACP. Therefore, they all had varying levels of understanding of the bitterly contested legacy of the US Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed, and, prompted by recent events in Charlottesville, most had been in lessons where the ‘confederate’ flag had been discussed and, in my lessons at least, the historical narrative of it being purely a symbol of southern pride had been challenged. It was therefore unsurprising that, while killing time waiting for our guide in Gettysburg, (a town not notable for its restraint in matters of Civil War memorabilia) alerted by the sound of furious whispering, I came upon a group of students standing in horrified fascination before a display of t-shirts bearing the Confederate flag and the legend ‘heritage not hate’.

Here was an opportunity to have a chat with my students about interpretations, but one that would be best seized after I had ushered them out of the shop and away from the beady eye of its proprietor. (Who had not only chosen to stock an awful lot of Confederate flag memorabilia, but who had also decided to cash in on the controversy within the NFL by displaying several t-shirts proclaiming ‘we stand for the flag’.)

The reason I was so keen to talk to my students was because I’ve been thinking a lot about interpretations recently. Part of this is due to the challenges of the A Level coursework, which requires the students to include a discussion of ‘interpretations’. Now like most examples of this element in the A level course, this would have been termed ‘historiography’ when I was at sixth form, as it involves researching and comparing the views of historians about the importance of different presidents or turning points in the movement.

This approach is also present in the part of the course which involves a breadth study of Russia (which I do not teach them) where they are required to answer questions focused on extracts from historical works. I was conscious that, as we have only recently overhauled our KS3 curriculum, weaving in more enquiries that involve an element of interpretations, these sixth-formers probably had a rather narrow idea of what a historical interpretation was. Having these objects in front of us, from the the statues in the Capitol building, to the Lincoln Memorial, to the troubling confederate flag t-shirt, was a really good opportunity to reinforce the idea of cheap t-shirts and stone monuments as being part of the fabric of historical interpretation, reflecting and even influencing the arguments advanced in historical scholarship. So we stood for a while on the grass outside the gift shop and I started a discussion about what the students had seen in there.

Interestingly, the students were not resistant, as I half suspected they might be, to the idea that a slogan on a t-shirt might contain a crude expression of a particular interpretation of history. The sticking point, with the confederate flag t-shirt was whether it could be classed as the interpretation because it represented a historical narrative that was contradicted by most available evidence and moreover, one that was used with harmful social and political effects. Agreeing with them on both points, I was nevertheless interested in asking them the following question:

‘Haven’t you come across interpretations that aren’t valid before?’

This was one of those irritating teacher questions where I already knew the answer, aware that a lot of their work on the Russia side of the course involves judging the validity of interpretations against their knowledge of the period. Many of these interpretations were also regularly challenged by the students on the grounds that their intent was to produce a narrative of history that suited a particular political perspective. (Needless to say, I’ve heard a lot of grumblings from colleagues marking these essays about the students’ persistent affection for that dreadful word ‘biased’.) Maybe is was because they had not encountered this interpretation in an extract set out in a textbook, but it took my prompting for them to see this t-shirt in a similar light, as historically inaccurate, politically harmful, but still a historical interpretation for all that. I would have liked to continue the conversation but unfortunately I was called in to assist with talking one of the students out of buying a large plastic rifle. This achieved, our guide turned up and we started our tour of the battlefield; which had its own competing layers of interpretations, so I’ll have to revisit the issue with them after half-term.

The second conversation occurred after we had left Gettysburg behind and were spending the final two days in New York. One of the most interesting and affecting parts of this section of the trip was a visit to the 9/11 museum. Obviously, it was a sobering experience, but from the perspective of my preoccupation with interpretations, one of the most interesting aspects of it was the conversation I had with some of my students afterwards.

For those reading who haven’t been (if you do get the chance to, I would recommend it) the structure of the museum is such that it opens with a series of recordings and artefacts that primarily serve as a memorial, the intent being to provide a space for remembrance and to provoke an emotional response. As you move into the centre of the museum, the events of the day are then told through a timeline, with artefacts and video to illustrate the events as they happened. As I walked around, I found this latter part of the museum more intensely affecting than the former, mainly because the act of reading over the sequence of events and particularly watching the clips from the news provoked my own memories of sitting in horrified silence in front of the television on the day, watching many of the events unfold in real time. This made me wonder whether my students, none of whom remembered the events personally, would have different reactions to me.

As we walked back from the museum I fell into conversation with some of them. As I suspected, our reactions to the initial recordings and objects were similar, the students mentioned the voice recordings from the day and from people talking about their experiences in the aftermath as particularly affecting. Our experiences diverged however, when it came to the timeline section of the museum. one of the students made the interesting remark that ‘the main bit seemed more objective, just telling the story,’ an impression with which the other students concurred.

This was really interesting to me in what it revealed about their perceptions of objectivity and also how it demonstrated the importance of the presence or absence of personal memory in affecting our differing interpretations of what we saw. Because the timeline set out in the museum intersected in part with my own timeline of that day, its effect was primarily to provoke my own memories of coming home from school and watching events play out on the news. For the students however, with no personal recollection of the events, the artefacts included provoked emotion, but the information about the events of the day was perceived as more informative, with less personal impact.

It was a privilege to have the time and space to have these conversations with the students, and its made me think about how we might take some of the careful thinking we’ve done about interpretations as part of the KS3 curriculum and apply it more systematically to the A Level course. As valuable as these conversations have been, opening up some of these ideas about what objects might be part of historical interpretations, their validity and differences in response to historical interpretation might be too important to happen by chance, even if the context of the classroom is a little less inspiring than gazing over at the Washington Monument and its mirror in the water below.