What was the most significant event in human history? It was interesting to hear the Year 8s’ initial ideas: World War I and World War II were both suggested, as was the battle of Hastings. The children’s answers in general reflected a couple of traps that we all have to be mindful considering the importance of historical events. We all have a tendency to focus on recent historical events, especially if we know people who had a part to play in those events, such as World War II. We also tend to look quite narrowly at our own history, the history of Britain: the battle of Hastings might be considered a significant event in the history of a small group of islands in the North Atlantic, but I doubt very much that children in Thailand learn about the Norman Conquest. Of course, the children are hardly at fault if they cite the things they learn about in history lessons when asked about the most significant events in human history. However, it does mean that history teachers have a responsibility to make sure that the children they teach at least occasionally catch a glimpse of the bigger picture.
One contender for the most significant event in human history is the Neolithic Revolution, when people transitioned from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to a more settled way of life based on agriculture. It is misleading to think of this as an ‘event’, as the process of becoming farmers took hundreds if not thousands of years, and many different people across the planet made that transition independently of each other. Another contender for the most significant event in human history is the emergence of writing. This transition is of such importance that it defines the boundary between ‘prehistory’ and ‘history’!
The Year 8s began the term in the distant past, learning about the emergence and spread of agriculture, but they swiftly moved on to more familiar territory, finding themselves in the middle of the fourteenth century. Not so long ago, studying the Black Death provided a grim insight into the horrors of medieval life, but its significance barely seemed to reach beyond the end of the Dark Ages. Sadly, the Black Death has found renewed significance, and the comparisons with Covid-19 are illuminating. The Black Death arrived in England in Dorset in June of 1348, and it seems to have taken at least three months for the plague to reach London. This obviously contrasts starkly with the fact that Covid-19 reached England from China in a matter of weeks. Fortunately, medical practices have come a long way in the last seven hundred years and we are no longer reliant on self-flagellation or drinking mercury as cures when the world is struck by a pandemic. Interestingly, whilst medieval medical interventions had a negligible impact on the Black Death, social distancing measures adopted by some at the time are likely to have reduced the spread of the plague.
The theme for the Year 8s this term is Revolutions, and primarily they have been looking at the Black Death in relation to the Peasants’ Revolt, which took place a generation later. Over the course of the term, the children in Year 8 will be learning about the Enlightenment as well as the American and French Revolutions, before finishing the term with the little-studied Green Revolution of the twentieth century.