Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Breaking the Habit: a review by John A. Hargreaves

Breaking the Habit: A Life of History, Richard Brown, Authoring History, 2016, 175 pp., £7.13, paper, ISBN 9781530295234
In this retrospective but far from introspective, autobiographical memoir Richard Brown muses ‘on the nature of History in an increasingly challenging environment’. The author, familiar to readers of online reviews on the Historical Association website as a prolific reviewer of a wide range of historical resources and as a compulsive blogger on his popular blog, The History Zone, which has a diverse following encompassing students in secondary, tertiary and higher education, confesses himself to being addicted to history for almost as long as he can remember. I first encountered Richard as a fellow reviewer for the Historical Association’s flagship journal for secondary school teachers, Teaching History, and utilised many of his textbooks in the classroom in my own teaching, finding them always well-grounded in classroom experience, thoroughly researched and lucidly stimulating in the historical interpretations they offered. But this is more than a handbook for history teachers as the equestrian photograph of the infant author on the cover anticipates and essentially it reveals the extent to which a developing understanding of history interweaves with our life experiences from the cradle to the grave. It is more personal than anything else he has written and particularly moving in its account of how as a registered carer he supported his late wife Margaret, to whose memory the book is dedicated, in his post-retirement years until her death in 2015.
Its starting point is the affirmation that many would share that ‘being a teacher remains one of the most fulfilling of the professions’ and that ‘there is nothing more enjoyable than observing students learning to become critical in their approach to life’. What follows, he continues, is ‘an otiose attempt to make sense of my own life by intermingling autobiography with materials on History, teaching and learning initially written often at speed as part of on-going debates on education and history but now revised in the more cloistered solitude of my study’. It identifies the hybrid influences combining the rural experience of the Fens and the traditions of his mother’s family with the urban experience of his father and his family, mediated initially largely through memories and stories but with an increasing recognition of the importance of historical evidence in creating ‘a narrative to explain the evidence’ and a developing focus on how students learn history throughout his teaching career influenced strongly like so many of us by the Schools History Project.

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