Sunday, January 24, 2021

Doing the Romans


Apparently school in lockdown has arbitrary rules just like school in real life. I have it on good authority that one such rule is that you don't do online learning in bed. But rules are there to be broken and when there's nowhere else it's obviously the most sensible option. And, after all that's been written about the benefits of family learning we could probably be making a lot more out of a difficult situation. We could. That's if we weren't doing the Romans. Again. Parents and professionals in primary education will be familiar with that word 'doing' and what it really means. Doing is about kindling curiosity but it can also mean rehearsing a rather random collection of half-truths on a subject, and then doing it to death. At its best doing is inspirational, at worst dull. Take the Romans - well no wait, let's start a little further back - why take the Romans in the first place? Because they were brutal oppressors who robbed the English of their sovereignty? Or because they were Europeans operating a frictionless border? Or maybe it's something about their culture, their language - Latin that 'special' language of theirs we learnt in school. Ostensibly it helped us to be better at English. Laid bare it was an historical remnant of the mutually supporting edifices of church and school - lauda finem! No, I strongly suspect that we do the Romans because we've always done the Romans. We've done their fancy legionary helmets, done their flowing togas and if we're lucky we've done their mosaics in art and their numerals in maths. So how come teachers and children have no time for the Romans? How come they say that the Romans are boring? Yes, partly it's because they've been done to death, but it's also because of the enormous vacuum of relevance (vacuum, from the Latin vacuus meaning empty). It's the yawning gap that separates contemporary childhood from those imagined Romans (yawn, from Old English yonen). I have to come clean now. I love history, and I also happen to love those long straight roads, I love the monumental failure of Hadrian's Wall, doomed like so many other geopolitical follies around the world - the Great Wall, the Berlin Wall and all the rest. It's just that when you line up all the things you could do with primary children in lockdown, and all the history you could do in pandemic, the Romans aren't the first to spring to mind. I'm sure they had the odd virus to contend with (virus, from the Latin for slimy liquid) but it's not in the popular stories - it's not one of their greatest hits. Why not just leave them to luxuriate in their mosaic-tiled villas, lounging around in their flouncy togas, sipping from their flagons of wine, maybe having the occasional orgy if they can rouse themselves? Come on now, I'm sure they'd prefer that to being done again.

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