WW1 – an education tribute

This post has little direct connection with Africa, other than that it started me on my journey into the First World War in Africa and provides an opportunity to thank all those who’ve educated me along the way. The Polytechnic and World War 1 is responsible for this post.

It’s generally the institution where one completed one’s PhD that gets the accolades and that carries an unspoken acknowledgement of status/quality stamp. Yet, behind the work that goes into a PhD is all the previous learning, encouragement and development.

I had the great privilege of having a liberal, challenging history teacher for all 5 years of secondary education in South Africa during the last years of Apartheid – Mrs Ansell managed to bring history alive, whilst teaching us all the skills an historian needed – rapid legible handwriting, seeing ‘useless’ information as enhancing and not to be discarded or ignored as it adds to the picture and how the past links directly to the present. This approach stood me in good stead for later studies but not for my degree where we were still expected to answer questions in line with government thinking (I had chosen not to go to an ‘English’ university as my ‘local’ was constantly experiencing police raids and I wanted a ‘proper’ education).

My experience of studying history at a conservative Afrikaans university, although challenging at the time – I never seemed to pass South African history but excelled in ‘European’ – has since been of huge value in understanding the complexities of the country I grew up in. I’m grateful too that I’m practising as an historian now and not then – how my lecturers managed to reconcile their beliefs in how history should be studied and what they produced was no easy task, and I believe this accounts for the huge number of narrative accounts there are. I deal with this in my thesis, published under the title Britain, South Africa and the East Africa Campaign, 1914-1918: The Union comes of age (2006). I also hadn’t realised the huge divide between historical networks in the country and now have the privilege of access to a few, and to have seen how the more conservative establishments have opened up.

Through ignorance of the UK education system, I enrolled for an MA at the University of Westminster as it had become and am eternally grateful for the education I got there, in more ways than one. You cannot (and should not) judge a book by its cover! Apart from developing my skills as an historian, two lecturers had a subtle but significant impact on my later teaching career. Tony Gorst taught me how to embed numeracy into teaching history, whilst Martin Doherty showed how video and images could be used as historical sources (back in the late 1990s) – I still make a point of watching every James Bond movie to come out although haven’t managed to watch a complete Rambo. Above all, the team broke down the barriers I’d experienced between student and lecturer through discussions in the pub after lectures. Quality learning doesn’t necesarily take place in a classroom but when people are relaxed and enjoying themselves (and not just in the pub either).

But this doesn’t bring the link to WW1 in Africa. I’d vowed in my naivety to never look at SA history again and was going to explore Russian Communism as that had been the reason South Africa was involved in Angola and why the ANC was “bad”. I wanted to know more, however, the requirement for our dissertation was that we had to speak the language of the country we were looking at, and that put Russia out of the picture – I couldn’t learn Russian and complete a dissertation in 2 years. This meant a return to something South Africa and somehow, I can’t quite remember how, I decided on coal mining and Smuts in 1916. The mining didn’t work out though, thanks to Maggie Thatcher’s nationalising of the coal mines in 1985 – I couldn’t find what I was looking for – so Smuts became the focus, specifically how he got to sit on the British War Cabinet. And that in turn led to my discovery of South Africa’s involvement in East Africa during WW1. Discussions with Tony (the person behind the Polytechnic and World War 1) and Paul Ward led to me going to Royal Holloway, University of London for my PhD where Tony Stockwell and John Turner together did their part in trying to turn this rough stone into something of a competent historian. In particular, they encouraged challenging the myths and generally accepted truths using the evidence (be true to your sources – let them do the talking), and taught me that you’re never to old or qualified to learn or to revise your argument.

Since then, many others – academic and enthusiast – have worked, and continue to work, at challenging my thinking and smoothing the rough edges. Together, all have taught me the value of the minority voice and not to discount anyone’s story. Thank you all, and let the education continue – our own and of others!

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