It’s sobering and shaming that teenagers know more than their parents about history
ll over the country, 16-year-olds are very much not enjoying their Easter holidays. I just walked through the little park across the road from me as the council mowers were out. Nigh on four decades since I was battling O-levels, the smell of cut grass still gets exam panic rising in me like sap. It’s the time of year for it. My daughter is doing her GCSEs next month and it’s back in force, like a hay fever flare-up.
It must be hard for kids slogging away now, worrying about results until the end of August, only for the grownups to be muttering about how much harder it was in our day.
I am no longer one of those mutterers. I was out with some friends before Christmas when, to my disappointment, I got a cry for help from my daughter. She was revising for her history mock and had run into difficulties. She was reaching out to her wise old dad. When I say this was a disappointment, what I actually mean is that I was delighted.
“What are you struggling with?”
“The treaty of Versailles.”
“No problem,” I sighed heroically. “I’ll be around in a bit.”
I rose to my feet, explained the situation to the council of elders I drink with, and set off into the night. This, I thought, is what fatherhood is all about. I strolled into the kitchen, tapped the palms of my hands on the table, and said: “Right. Versailles.”
It was only then that I realised all I knew about the treaty of Versailles was that it concluded the first world war, was very tough on Germany and may well have contributed to the rise of fascism there. And that was about it.
“I know all this,” said my daughter. “Oh,” I said.
I spent the next half an hour utterly engrossed in her textbook, Cambridge IGCSE Modern World History Option B: The 20th Century, by Ben Walsh. It is brilliant. I found out what Lloyd George, Wilson and Clemenceau disagreed about: Wilson’s soft attitude to Germany annoyed Clemenceau because France had suffered so much more in the war than the US. Lloyd George was keener than Clemenceau on taking Germany’s colonies off them, as they had threatened the British empire. Wilson annoyed them both with his “14-point” guidelines for a lasting peace. Clemenceau said even “God almighty has only 10!” Great quote; I’ve managed to use it at dinner parties by skilfully wangling the conversation around to geopolitics.
Perhaps you are right across this stuff; I wasn’t. I read on. My daughter went to bed. Roosevelt’s New Deal; the Korean war; the Cuban missile crisis; all these things I had only half – well, quarter – known about. Fascinating. With pictures, maps, contemporary cartoons, easy-to-remember bullet points and all the stuff grownups are generally denied.
I asked for the book for Christmas, and it cost my daughter more than 20 quid for a secondhand copy, full of highlighter pen strokes made by a girl called Lauren. It’s sobering, and somewhat shaming, that my daughter, Lauren and hundreds of thousands of other teenagers know more about wildly relevant modern history then most of the rest of us. Who says exams aren’t what they were?