A while ago, the Provoked Pedagogue posed an interesting question on Twitter.
Where, s/he asked, do school trips fit into the ‘trad’ agenda? Don’t we believe in children sitting in rows, directly instructing them, and having frequent low-stakes tests? Aren’t we supposed to worry about the opportunity cost of children spending days learning something which could be done in an hour? Does this all get jettisoned when teachers fancy a nice day out?
(I paraphrase. I hope I haven’t been unfair or unreasonable in doing so. Very happy to edit if so.)
Well. I think, as I said on that platform, that this is a rather good point.
And sometimes I agree with it wholeheartedly. I have, for instance, been on school trips with Second Form (yes, I still use imperial measures … I think that’s Year Eight in the metric system) pupils to Hampton Court which involved very little History and a great deal of running through mazes, watching real tennis, enjoying cafes, shopping in gift shops, and sitting on coaches. I’ve been on school trips with First Form pupils to Warwick Castle – described by a colleague as a history theme park – which were similarly lacking in any real historical or educational value.
Was it because we fancied a ‘jolly’? Not really, though educationally the reason was no more justifiable. These trips happened at the end of the summer term, after the conclusion of internal examinations. I just typed out a long rant about these wretched things which I have deleted and to which I will devote another post, but in short the Provoked Pedagogue was right: the justification for these trips was dubious at best.
I have been on some really worthwhile school trips. One of my favourites was taking a day trip, with Lower Sixth pupils from a North London school, to the Tower of London. They were studying the Norman Conquest; right there on the specification was a section on castles; and right there in the same city was a bona fide Norman castle. We had a terrific guide who took us through the Norman keep and then did a couple of classroom sessions, and then we looked at some Norman armour.
But I can imagine the criticism already. Did they really need to take the day off school for it? Couldn’t I deliver the sessions which the Tower of London’s Education Department delivered? Wouldn’t a few slides on a screen showing a Norman castle be good enough? And did we really have to try on Norman helmets? It might have been fun for everyone to watch the young, charismatic, attractive guide offering an eleventh-century helmet to an intellectual, fashionable seventeen-year-old, helping her put it on, and saying ‘I hope that haircut wasn’t too expensive,’ but did it really add to anyone’s understanding of the Norman Conquest? No, I didn’t think so.
What about the trip to the Palace of Westminster, that staple of Politics departments throughout the south-east? Again, a whole day off school, and even if coupled with a trip to the Supreme Court we’re talking about an hour’s tour of the building and, if you’re lucky, half an hour with a Member of Parliament. (If you’re unlucky, twenty minutes with some minion from the MP’s office.) Is it worth it to see the Mother of Parliaments? Can’t this sort of thing be done electronically? Couldn’t I just say to the pupils, in my lesson, ‘actually the House of Commons might look big on television but in reality it’s rather small’? Even when we got to meet our local MP (cynically, you might think, though I couldn’t possibly comment, this only happened in General Election years) and put questions to her, it’s not as though these were questions she wasn’t on the record as having answered. Couldn’t I quite easily have shown a class Hansard transcripts, or clips from BBC Parliament?
Yeah, probably. I don’t feel like I agree, but I’m at a loss to come up with a decent argument.
I’ll try one more. What about the Great War battlefields-and-cemeteries trip to Belgium and northern France? Is that worth doing?
It’s a long time off school. (Actually at my last place it wasn’t: the History Department, scandalously, was not only forbidden to take Fourth Form pupils out of school in order to visit these sites, but was even forbidden to start the trip first thing on the first Saturday morning of half-term, because sports fixtures took priority, so we had to leave on a Sunday morning. No opportunity cost, then. But – much as I love rugger, and I do – I’m inclined to shake my head at the school’s priorities here.) It’s expensive. It involves a lot of travel. The pupils don’t concentrate: they’re more concerned about WiFi, or when they’re going to get to visit a chocolatier, or which girls are ‘fit,’ than about the war dead. Can’t I just tell them what happened?
I could tell them about Lijssenthoek cemetery, sure. I could tell them that there are thousands of graves there. I could point them to the number of young men cut down in the flower of youth. Then I could tell them about how these gravesites came into being, about how right at the beginning of the war officers’ bodies were repatriated, while the others’ weren’t, and how this quickly became unsustainable. I could tell them about how families could choose an inscription for the graves, and the restrictions on that choice. And I could tell them that otherwise each Commonwealth war grave was identical to the others, regardless of the rank of its occupant.
I could tell them that if you then move on to Tyne Cot, which – unlike Lijssenthoek, which was built on the site of an old field hospital – is sited on the battlefield of Passchendaele, you’ll see countless graves with no more information than ‘A Soldier of the Great War,’ on the upper part, and ‘Known Unto God’ underneath. I could tell them what that means about the condition of the bodies found there, and invite them to add that to their knowledge of the Third Battle of Ypres.
Would it be the same?
I don’t know. I don’t feel like it would be the same.
Can’t I just tell them that the first day of the Battle of the Somme was a disaster? (Discuss…) Sure. Was it unwise? Well. Again, discuss … but maybe if you’ve stood in the Allied lines at Beaumont-Hamel, beautifully preserved by the Canadians, and looked down at the German front lines and the Danger Tree, it’s easier to recognise that yes, whatever the merits of the choice of battlefield, there’s a reason why the idiocy of the generals of that particular war became so legendary, even if that image is now recognised to have been somewhat unfair.
Can’t I just tell them that the impact of the Great War encouraged France and the UK to pursue the policy of Appeasement? It doesn’t need a trip, does it? No, it doesn’t … and yet there is something about standing there in the vast French military cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette, watching the intensely moving daily ceremony there, that makes it somehow more understandable, that in the days when each of those graves contained the body of a young man only a little older than the pupils, anything would be preferable to going through that again.
There’s a new memorial there now, with the names of every soldier who died in that area inscribed on it, in alphabetical order, regardless of nationality. And that’s one more thing which the trip gives pupils, which they probably wouldn’t get in the classroom. The commemoration of the Great War is itself now part of history.
For years, it seemed that only British tour groups visited the German war graves, the most famous of which is that of Langemarck, near where poison gas was first used on the Western Front. In recent years, the little blue and yellow flowers which are the German equivalent of the poppy have appeared, though perhaps after November 2018 centenaries they will recede again, and whenever I have visited (admittedly during peak British-school-trip season) they’ve been heavily outnumbered by the British poppies.
There’s something quite special, I think, about how British schoolchildren lay their poppies on the graves of unknown German soldiers of the Great War.
And it’s not something that a history syllabus will cover. Not at any length. No exam spec will include ‘tell the kids about Langemarck – about how in the beginning it was little more than a pit for the graves of hated invaders, grim and unvisited, and why there are often still eight bodies to a grave, never mind the tens of thousands in the mass grave in the middle, and why Germans don’t do battlefields trips like we do, and how changing views of the war led the British to start coming here too…’ But we schoolteachers do tell the kids that, and it’s worth telling them.
And there we are – I have a reason. In these days when, if there’s no chance there’ll be a question on it in a public examination, it doesn’t get taught, the school trip offers something different. What should we think of those young freiwilliger who volunteered to fight for the Kaiser and were slaughtered in the First Battle of Ypres? No, I don’t have an answer for that one. But I do want young historians, a hundred years later, to spend some time thinking about what we should think of them. So that particular school trip, at least, can stay.
And if that makes me a bad trad, I can cope with that.