Why I Failed Ancient History

“Cicero,” declared my grammar school classics teacher, “was an old windbag.”

And that’s when it all came alive.

I was a straight A student – Latin, Greek and Ancient History.  What most people don’t know is that I failed my Ancient History exams at Cambridge.  I’d never been that good at history,  which wasn’t helped by our excruciatingly boring ‘normal’ history classes: lists of kings, battles, parliamentary bills, more battles.

But my classics teacher had specialised in ancient history and was absolutely passionate about it. She made it come alive. She described the events graphically,  conjuring the emotion of the characters, as if she was experiencing the history with all her senses: a movie in her head.   She talked about Pericles and Plato,  Cicero and Caesar,  as if she’d known them personally. She urged me to read historical novels set in those times that she considered well researched and accurately documented.

I still had to memorise the dates and battles, but it was so much easier as I played and replayed the movie in my own head.  I got a grade A.

However at Cambridge it was a different kettle of fish.

I learned that the stories my teacher had told me were the consensus of the scholars who had studied the sources – the differing accounts of ancient historians and other writers,  inscriptions and so on. Now, as budding classical scholars, we were expected to go and read the sources for ourselves, to analyse and compare them and draw our own conclusions about what happened, didn’t happen, might have happened.

But I ‘knew’ what had happened.  I couldn’t think outside that movie – those stories. More importantly, I didn’t want to.

I didn’t do the work required of me.

And so I failed my exams.

The moral of this is to exemplify how very powerful it can be to put over information as a living, emotion-packed story.

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7 Responses

  1. Bravo, Valerie. I’ve been missing your fresh, crisp writing.

    This is a good moral and lesson that has far-ranging application. The inicial story or emotional frame has the power of a million oxen. Vivid, no? It seems like a fitting metaphor for today.

    Thanks for the story.


  2. Thanks, Jenifer! Glad you liked it. The more I think about it, the more I feel overwhelmed by the implications. How much is our perception of what we think is the outside world a product of our stories?

  3. Oh man! All history is story–some are just more boring stories than others! I think it’s possible to tell the story of dry dates and facts in a better way. I’d’ve rebelled, too. I remember doing an independent study AP U.S. history class in high school. The only thing that made it palatable was the fact that our textbook have interesting vignettes and physical descriptions of the various presidents in each era. That was the first time I became really aware of the power of story in subjects other than English lit.

  4. I agree. History can be dull and boring or thrilling and incredible, depending on how it is presented. I go through spurts of enjoying well-written/researched historical fiction because of that. As much as I realize all the dates may not be completely accurate, I almost always walk away knowing more than when I started.

  5. A good teacher recognizes the importance of narrative and can draw students in with great stories. You can always look up exact dates if you need to. But a good story can make history come alive.

  6. What a wonderful teacher you had, even though you failed later exams. I always had to “see” a story rather than dates and lists of facts. Which explains why I was good at problem-solving math exercises, but lousy with the rest.

  7. Great post! I felt that way about many subjects. The teacher has a unique ability to connect students with material in multiple ways, but I’ve always been able to relate through storytelling versus memorizing dates.

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