Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Guest Post | Clifford Beal on Fact vs. Fiction in the Curriculum

Gideon's Angel was fantastic fun. But if you've read the preamble to my review, you'll see that I got rather distracted by the idea of real history, and how we teach it.

As an English tutor when I'm not reviewing books, a large part of my day job involves finding ways to get the kids I work with interested in reading and writing, and that's rarely as easy as it seems. Few can see past the stress and the pressure of exams, because that's what the curriculum is all about: a grade at the end of the day. On the one hand, I have to help them get a good one; on the other, it'd be easier if a few more of them gave a flying fuck about the subject.

That said, I sympathise. When I was in their position, more years ago now that I'm completely comfortable admitting, I was never particularly interested in history. I got my grades, but I didn't much care about the subject one way or the other.

That probably had a lot to do with my dreary teacher, because in recent years, I've realised I could have been. Should have been, even. History can be absolutely fascinating—as demonstrated by Gideon's Angel—but only when taught properly. And as Clifford Beal argues in the guest post I'm proud to post below, where there's a will, there's a way.


I’ll be truthful. I started my writing profession grounded purely in stone-cold reality. Defence journalism, articles for history magazines, and finally, a book about a little-known Anglo-American pirate named John Quelch who lived in the early 18th century and whose case set legal precedent.

It was that sense of adventure, of the mysteries of what had gone before, that drew me into switching over to write historical fiction and fantasy. I have always read historical fiction. And for me, history was always very much alive, all around us, and always a source of discovery.

As a child, I remember a near endless series of fiction books called Childhoods of Famous Americans, published by the now defunct Bobbs-Merrill company but now back in print. I would devour probably one a week. They were written from the 1930s onwards and when I discovered them in the sixties, they were just as exciting.

These books were instrumental in taking larger-than-life historical figures, somewhat dull as taught in the classroom, and making their experiences relevant to me, as a kid. So too did television often trigger a trip to the library. Watch  Henry Fonda barking orders in the Battle of the Bulge on TV? Check. Then I’d go and read the book. It was axiomatic for me then and probably for a lot of people my age.

I’m not so sure that’s the case any more. It appears today kids are taught “modules” in history where they dive deep into ancient Egypt one term and then WWII the next. They know nothing in between and end up with an unconnected series of historical waypoints that have no relevance or meaning. [All too true!—Ed.] Give me chronological teaching any day.

So here’s an idea: get kids into learning history again by teaching it as a subject that tells “how we got to where we are” and supplement it with narrative, both real and fictitious. If historical fiction can excite young people to take more interest in the actual events of the past—and their impact on the world today—then overall education will benefit and we might actually get a few more historians (and novelists) to enjoy reading in the future.

But what does this all have to do with historical fantasy or alternate history genre fiction? OK, cause and effect gets a bit weaker here I admit, but even speculative fiction can engender serious thought about who we are. And what might have been. Maybe if a kid reads H.G. Wells he’ll develop an interest in the Victorian age—or planetary science. For me, I’m chuffed to bits that I can combine my two great pleasures that are history and fantasy, have fun creating it, and give others the escapist pleasure in reading it.


Many thanks for that, Clifford!

So, folks... thoughts? What say you to a bit of fiction with your fact?

1 comment:

  1. Great post, and perhaps I say that because it agrees with what I've been saying for years.
    I write novels about Canada in the last part of the 19th century. The reason for that is, even though I enjoyed history those many decades ago when I took it in school I found it very dry and very boring. I came to believe that history of area or age is made by people. Those people did things and feel things much as we do and to them, what they where experiencing was neither dry or boring.
    If I, or anyone else can write an entertaining story that contains some history, perhaps some bored student will understand that what is in the course curriculum (just the facts, Ma-am) is not all that happened. Then perhaps that student will discover that life is usually more than what is presented or seen on the surface.
    I also believe that those who read fiction are the ones who learn to THINK not simply record.