Tackling the content challenges posed by modern world history
- What particular problems are posed by modern world history?
- What can we do?
- Difficult concepts, unfamiliar terms and unfamiliar contexts
- Complex content
- High politics feels impersonal
What particular problems are posed by modern world history?
In some respects, modern world history is easier than other periods of history in that the immediacy of modern history makes it easier for students to connect with the periods and individuals being studied. But even so, modern world history presents a range of specific challenges:
- Difficult concepts, unfamiliar terms and unfamiliar contexts: Modern world history inevitably brings students into contact with a wide range of specific and often unfamiliar concepts. There are political concepts such as Fascism, Democracy or Communism. There are also specific terms, such as ‘appeasement’, ‘treaty’ or ‘revolution’, as well as technical terms like ‘hydrophone’, ‘sonar’, ‘radar’;
- Complex content: The history of the modern world is arguably no more complex than the medieval or early modern world. However, in most areas of modern world history we generally have more information and source material. This can be an advantage, of course, but it can also be a disadvantage as we struggle to make sense of the overwhelming amount of source material available. The extent of material also gives rise to the possibility of competing alternative interpretations;
- High politics feels impersonal: The majority of students studying modern world history will investigate issues relating to international relations – diplomacy, treaties, alliances, war. Ordinary people have little or no experience of the way in which international relations are worked out – the deals done, the meetings, conferences, summits, at which politics ‘happens’.
What can we do?
An archive like the Churchill Archive might not seem like the most obvious or immediate answer to these challenges. However, using archive sources can bring students much closer to the action and make something which appears to be lofty, conceptual and impersonal into something personal and accessible.
Difficult concepts, unfamiliar terms and unfamiliar contexts
The traditional method of helping students with difficult and unfamiliar terms is to provide glossaries and similar devices. But definitions in glossaries can only take students so far. And most students will always prefer to simply ask their teacher. Sometimes this can be due to laziness, but more often it’s because teachers usually provide more than a definition. They provide context and examples which give depth and rounding to a definition.
Churchill Archives for Schools can’t provide a teacher but we do provide, through the source selection, context and meaning for many of these difficult terms. For example, in the investigation on the Second Front there are numerous technical terms relating to seaborne invasions. On their own, many of these terms may not make much sense to twenty-first century students, even with a glossary. However, in the context of a letter or telegram written by a military commander the meaning of the terms becomes more apparent and it may even be possible to work out meanings from context.
Even if this isn’t possible, the sources in the investigations contain ‘help’ features, particularly the ‘What is this source?’ feature and the ‘Background to this source’ feature. These are explained in more detail here.
A letter from Lord Morley, a senior Liberal MP, to the MP Winston Churchill, December 1901. The Carlton refers to the Carlton Club, which was an old and prestigious club where Conservative MPs met. The letter reads: “I find my copy of the book I commended to you has been lent. It is sure to be on the table at the Carlton. “Poverty: A Study of Town Life”. It is not nearly as long as it looks.” See the full document in the Archive here.
At first sight it might not seem logical to try to help students understand complex content by presenting them with yet more content. In fact, students often struggle to understand complex content because they have too little detail, not because they have too much. Students will often make comments along the lines of:
- ‘Why did the politicians insist on workers paying insurance instead of just giving them benefits like today?’
- ‘Why did they appease Hitler and not just declare war on him?’
- ‘Why didn’t the US just stand up and fight Stalin and drive him out of Berlin?’
These comments are understandable from individuals who lack a detailed understanding of the content they’re studying. Their logic is understandable: if you have an enemy, fight him and defeat him. In this mindset, the actions of Prime Ministers and Presidents are hard to understand. However, these arguments are based on a simplistic understanding which has oversimplified the problem. If students begin from the premise that the problem isn’t simple, and they’re shown how and why it isn’t simple, then the fact that the leaders don’t take direct, simplistic approaches may become less confusing.
What better way to demonstrate the complexity of a situation than to read letters, telegrams or other papers written by leaders explaining the difficulty of their position?
High politics feels impersonal
Once again, the Churchill Archive might not seem an obvious place to look for a solution to these challenges but in fact an archive is an excellent place to look for source material which can bring a personal dimension to something which seems remote and impersonal.
If we take the example above, we see that one senior political figure is recommending to another that he should read a particular book about the problem of poverty. We also see that the book can be found in a club frequented by MPs. This small, personal exchange is clear evidence that the political classes in Britain are becoming interested in welfare in the early 1900s. But students reach this realisation through an exchange of notes between friends rather than by a weighty textbook simply telling them. Wherever possible the Churchill Archive for Schools resource tries to bring in this personal dimension as a vehicle to make high politics more accessible.