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Friday, 8 July 2011

Kennedy’s Pimp

When the new school curriculum decreed that every child should learn about the ‘Industrial Revolution,’ History Departments up and down the country had a problem: how to persuade children that history was more interesting than Richard Arkwright’s Water Frame, and Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny? And don’t get me started on ‘Turnip Townsend.’

In short, how were we to persuade the brightest and best to choose History as a GCSE option and so maximise the grades by which a Department was judged?

The process was inexorable. Child poverty and abuse, became ‘entertainment;’ the ‘Slave Trade,’ the Workhouse, children in mines, exploited again in order to provide cheap thrills for otherwise bored students; prurience and sympathy curiously mixed.

Titillation reached its peak just before students came to make their final choice of options for Years 10 and 11.

Then we moved on to the Holocaust and Kennedy’s brain. These were ‘taster’ lessons, pedagogic commercials for the joys awaiting them should they choose to do history the following year.

These two years of modern history have formed in my mind a sombre montage of Horst Wessel and wasted corpses, lynchings and burning barns, men ranting in white pointy hats, others in uniforms and surrounded by flags. And every year we dissected Kennedy’s brain in our search for who murdered him.

This was the highpoint of our coursework for over a decade, the reason why many chose to do history in the first place. Who killed President Kennedy? It had everything: a who-dun-it caught in colour and never resolved. It combined serious analysis of varied and conflicting evidence with the gravitas of Greek tragedy.

Twice a year for a decade or more, my life would be briefly dominated by endless freeze-frames of Kennedy’s head jerking back…or was it forward? Trajectories, Oswald’s marksmanship, or lack of it, Jacqueline’s undignified scramble out of the car, or was she trying to grab a piece of her husband’s head. No reverence here, the children wanted to know.

And I was part of the process, at one with Oswald lurking behind that window, or the possible second gunman behind the white picket fence on the knoll. Only every year, unlike Zapruder, I knew what would happen. I stood poised to freeze-frame what Zapruder had filmed. I had the remote, doomed to pause and repeat history year after year. Had a president died for this?


Maria Zannini said...

There's no way to equate your method to the train wrecks they pimp on reality tv and other such venues. At least you were opening up minds. The media scrunches them up into tight little packagees--insulated from everything except the 'media truth'.

You posed legitimate questions. The media gives us sound bites and summaries.

Adam M. Smith said...

Great, thought-provoking post.

It's certainly macabre, in its way, the way we wean our children on the horror stories of history. But what draws people into a fascination with and study of history? History's a long story. The world's greatest story.

We'd be fooling ourselves to say that those twisted moments of history - the footage of Auschwitz, the Black Death, the Inquisition and the Iron Maiden - aren't those that grab onto a young person's mind and cling there like a burr. But you always hope a young mind can take as much reflection as sensation out of Anne Frank's Diary.

I'm not saying that history should be presented and taught as a simple procession of titillating atrocities, and as a teacher it must be troubling to be forced to relive (over and over again) scenes like the Kennedy assassination.

But I can also clearly remember when history began to grab hold of my mind, and it began with a teacher that liked to mix in lots of great asides about hangings and ghosts and crucifixions, and as soon as he would launch into one you could see the torpor of the entire class sort of evaporate.

It works in much the same way as literature. If I want my children to eventually discover and appreciate Shakespeare or Joyce or Tolstoy, there's a good chance I'm going to have to let them discover more sensationalistic authors like RL Stine, Poe, and Stephen King. Stepping stones, I suppose, for the maturing mind.

Before cultivating a fascination, they must be fascinated.

Mike Keyton said...

Maria, 'media truth' is a beautiful phrase and a horrible, sinister reality. I'm hoping to post on that sometime if the red wine flows and the brain cooperates.
Adam, thanks for the comments. You're dead right, the hook is crucial. The only thing is there are some who never get beyond the hook :)

Unknown said...

This reminds me of the teenager on a TV game show who, when asked where JFK was shot, said: 'Grassy Knoll'. When asked where Grassy Knoll might actually be, he had no real idea but suspected it might be in America.

Yes, the hook is crucial to grab interest. The clever part is persuading people to go beyond the hook and delve deeper. Not sure how that's done as I didn't progress much further than Turnip Townsend...

Mike Keyton said...

Now if Turnips Townsend had been assassinate near the Grassy knoll - we'd have had a hook!