Teaching History

Developing Independent Thinking through History

Hello! My name is Hugh Nicklin.
I signed up on 05/23/98 15:04:01.

I have 33 years' experience of teaching History to people aged between six and nineteen. I am now semi-retired, but still teaching at an English private school for children aged 3-13.

The main themes of my page are:
History Teaching as a controversial activity.
Governmental controls on the way the past is presented to children.
How to teach History in a way that does justice to the nature of the subject.
How to make History accessible to poor readers by Readability Control.
What an honest and informed person would choose to bring to the attention of young learners if he were NOT restricted by government curricula.

I should like to make two obvious but important points about History Teaching

Teachers' Authority: the Roger Mortimer Solution

The teacher is a shark among the goldfish. Once the teacher has pronounced that something is the case, the weight of his/her authority shrivels up the independent thinking processes of the learners. Very few children can successfully challenge the teacher's words. If they seem close to doing so teachers feel uncomfortable. Teachers nervously tell each other stories of children 'catching them out making a mistake'. They should not feel like this. History is, after all, not so much a body of fact as a cacophony of allegations. The historian who claims certainty is a nincompoop or a propagandist. (If anyone is interested in my own particular allegation, then he may jump down this document to the heading Distorting Authorities)

Over many years I have devised a way of dealing with this. In a lesson I delay the moment when the children find out what I think. For a few precious minutes I create an 'authority free zone' in which children can have genuine historical discussions. It's a simple idea, but you will have to concentrate hard in reading how it's done.

I do this by

  1. There are differences in wording which make no difference to the facts, e.g. "Roger Mortimer was a medieval baron" against "Roger Mortimer was a baron in medieval times." The children are told that such variations are not important. They need take no action about them.

  2. There are contradictions between the versions which the children are challenged to resolve. They can resolve them by many strategies. Thus one version of the second sentence about Roger Mortimer might read 'He lived in Herefordshire', and the other might read 'He lived on the planet Zarg'. Children who have the smallest understanding of history would easily (and with mirth) reject the second. A higher level of understanding might be required to resolve: 'He lived in a teepee' against 'He lived in a castle', and a much higher level to resolve 'Edward II's relationship with Hugh Despenser made Roger more strongly royalist' against 'less strongly royalist'.

  3. There are contradictions which CANNOT BE RESOLVED. If I say in one version that Edward II was murdered in Berkeley Castle, and in the other that he escaped and ended his life in an Italian monastery, the children are unable to say which is true without further research. Even if they do the research they will eventually find both these opinions supported in published work. They are advised to say: 'I do not know which of these is true'.

    I am listening to the discussions as I move round the room. The children ask me questions as they feel necessary, but I do not tell them which version of a contradiction has my authority. (Both versions generally have the same number of errors)

At the end of the lesson I give them a 'Model Answer' which reflects the state of my own knowledge. A large amount of many topics is generally agreed and non-controversial, and the Model Answer reflects this. To this extent "authoritativeness" is unavoidable and indeed essential if children are not to be called upon to re-invent the entire history of human progress in their immature minds. . Floppy progressivism seemed indifferent to the need to hand on what is known. I then tell the children which contradictions I thought they ought to have spotted and resolved. I then go on to explain about the contradictions which I found and was unable to resolve myself.

We evaluate the work of each pair using a 'marking sheet', which involves giving the highest marks to those who understood where the contradictions were incapable of reolution. We thus come together at the end of the lesson as learners jointly struggling to dispel 'the cloud of unknowing',

After most lessons there is, therefore, an opportunity for further research among available secondary sources in the classroom, library or home. This research is a genuine seeking after knowledge, not the usual dreary transcribing from a reference book.

Try the Roger Mortimer work (click on the link below). It is designed for use with average to above average 13 year olds. I should be most grateful if you would Email me with your opinion of it at hdj_nicklin@bigfoot.com

Another, easier version designed for use by a parent and a child working together at home, is on Custer's Last Stand for which a link is shortly to be added.

Go To custer

Distorting Authorities

No-one does History for nothing. I do it for money, as a History teacher. Many do it for political advantage, and many do it out of a need for some kind of emotional fulfilment. Thus we find many genealogists trying to bolster themselves by associations with ancestors, many religious persons trying to bolster themselves by association with an imaginary person in the sky and many nationalists trying to bolster themselves by association with a state, nation, tribe or such like.

The British National Curriculum in History exemplifies some of the problems. It openly avows its aim to put British History first, and I suppose that this is a very universal characteristic of such documents. Imagine a television report of a sporting event in which the cameras pointed only at one corner of the field! I hear that in the USA each separate state has its own curriculum, which is carrying it to an extreme.

The plain fact is that there is a history of the world which ought to be taught everywhere: here it is:

Ancestors of Man

The universe probably began about fifteen billion years ago. About five billion years ago the earth was formed. About 660 million years ago the first life appeared on earth. The first tiny living creatures lived in the sea. After them came bigger ones which could go on land, or fly. These creatures were the ancestors of Man. Some, including monsters called dinosaurs, became extinct because they could not look after themselves properly.

Stone Ages

Two million years ago there appeared on earth, in Africa, a new creature. It could look after itself better than any other creature. It had a big brain and clever hands, and was called Man. It learned how to make tools and weapons out of stone. For 1,995,000 years man lived by hunting animals with his stone weapons. We call this long time the Stone Ages. During the Stone Ages humans spread out from Africa to other parts of the world.

Cradles of Civilization

After 1,995,000 years somebody had a good idea. It would be easier to hunt animals if you shut them up in a field. You always knew where they were, and you did not have to go so far to catch them. This clever idea was called farming. Now the people could stay in one place and build houses. They learned how to grow food. In warm, wet places the food grew so well that a few people could grow enough food for lots of other people. The others started to live in cities, using their spare time to think of new ideas to make their lives better. The first civilised people lived in cities in Iraq, Egypt, China and India, about five thousand years ago. One of the new ideas was writing, so this is when History really begins. When people can live together like this we say they have become civilised.

Bronze and Iron Ages

It wasn't long before the people in these cities found out how to make metals, and one day someone mixed copper and tin together and discovered bronze. Bronze was hard enough for tools and weapons. Bronze tools and weapons were quicker to make, and better than stone. Armies with bronze weapons beat armies with stone weapons. Then in about 1400 BC (about three thousand four hundred years ago) someone found out how to make iron. Armies with iron beat armies with bronze. During these "Bronze and Iron Ages" there was a lot of fighting, but also a lot of trading, because everyone wanted to have the most up-to-date weapons. Traders brought bronze and iron to Britain.

Imperial Chinese Dynasties

In China the city people who made bronze conquered lots of other people. Their leader called himself an "emperor". His son ruled after him, and their sons after them. A line of rulers like this a a dynasty. A line of emperors like this is called an Imperial dynasty. The history of China is divided up into seven great dynasties The first one was the Shang Dynasty, and it began about 3000 BC. The last was the Manchu dynasty, which ended in 1911 AD.

Thinkers of the Ancient World

In the new cities people made useful inventions and discoveries. An Indian woman mathematician called Lilavati and a Greek called Pythagoras both worked out how to make sure that a corner was square. But they did not only think of ways of making life more comfortable. They also thought about difficult questions like "Why are we here?", and "What is good behaviour?" A Chinese person called Confucius invented a "Golden Rule": "Treat other people as you would like them to treat you". Confucius, Pythagoras and Lilavati were famous Thinkers of the Ancient World.

Alexander and Asoka

In those times there were many savage warriors. They went about killing people and destroying things. Alexander and Asoka were warriors, but they were unusual. They helped to spread useful knowledge into the lends they had conquered. Alexander spread the ideas of Greek thinkers all the way to India. Asoka spread Buddhist ideas all the way over to Egypt.


The Romans started off as an iron age tribe who lived on seven hill forts in the middle of Italy which they made into the city of Rome. They were much better organised than other iron age tribes. They worked as a team in battle, and when building their famous straight roads. Most iron age tribes fetched their water in buckets. The Romans had a permanent supply of clean running water through aqueducts. The Romans spoke Latin, which is an important part of many languages still spoken today, such as French, Spanish, Italian and English. They invented a system of law which is still in use today. They had slaves to do their hard work for them, and loved dangerous and cruel sports, such as chariot racing and gladiator fights.

In 55 BC the first Romans came to Britain, led by the famous Julius Caesar. The Romans conquered England and Wales. They built a wall to keep out the people from Scotland. For 350 years they kept England and Wales peaceful.

The Roman Empire in the west was destroyed by barbarian invasions between 400 and 600 AD. The Romans moved their capital east to Constantinople, where they ruled until 1453.

Our Lord

keen observers may notice that the choice of headings is dictated by the need for the initial letters to form mnemonic words)

A hundred years before the Romans came to Britain, and at about the same time as British Camp was being built, the Romans conquered what is now Israel, and there, during the reign of the first ‘Emperor' of Rome, whose name was Augustus, Jesus was born, perhaps at Nazareth in about 6 BC. Very little is known for certain about his life. In about 30 AD he was crucified.

Jesus said that God was concerned about everyone, whoever and whatever they were. This was a strange and pleasant idea, especially to poor people. Before then, gods had been thought of as too grand to care about ordinary people.

Confucius' Golden Rule' had been to ‘treat other people as you would like them to treat you'. To this Jesus added ‘...even if they aren't nice to you'. This was a lovely idea, but terribly difficult to follow.

At first the Romans were cruel to the Christians because they refused to worship the emperor. They burned Christians and threw them to the lions as entertainment. But by 330 even the Roman emperors themselves became Christian. Christianity is now the world's largest religion.

The Dark Ages

During the period 400-600, the Roman Empire was gradually taken over by other peoples. At first they copied Roman ways, but gradually much of the Roman civilization was lost. Life became dangerous again as it had been in the Iron Age. We call this bad time ‘The Dark Ages'.

Only two living links remained in existence in Western Europe. One was the Christian church, which kept learning alive. The other was Venice. The Venetians had fled to live on a mudbank in the sea to be safe from savage barbarians, and there they, too, kept Roman ways going.

During the Dark Ages fierce tribes entered Europe: The ‘Franks' conquered France. The Angles and Saxons conquered eastern Britain, which became known as Angle-land or, by about the year 950 ‘AD'.(Keen eyed observers notice a touch of anglocentricism here. I have to teach in England, and some compromises are necessary)

During this long time, far away round the Eastern Mediterranean, the Roman Empire still survived. Its capital remained at ‘Constantinople' until 1453.


Mohammed was born in 570 A.D. He worked as a camel-driver in Mecca. He decided that the Christians were mistaken about Jesus. He could not be part of God, because there is only one God, whose name is Allah. Mohammed's followers are called Muslims. The Muslim "Bible" is the "Koran", part of which is similar to the Old Testament in the Bible. Muslims try not to drink any alcohol (the word is Arabic). They try to visit Mecca once in their lives as a pilgrimage.

African Kingdoms

While the European countries were in the middle of the Dark ages, Between 400 and 1000 civilisation flourished in Africa. The people of Ghana had a University at Timbuktu long before there ever was one at Oxford. In the eleventh century Mali had a wealthy empire. These empires were often led by great warriors such as the Ashanti Kings of Ghana. Many of the people became Muslims.


During the Dark Ages Europe was overrun by barbarians. Among them the Angles and Saxons conquered England, The Franks conquered France, the Visigoths conquered Spain and the Huns conquered Germany. The last of the terrible raiders to sweep into Europe were the Norsemen, or Vikings. They set out from Scandinavia to the east, invading Russia. From there they reached Byzantium, the capital of what was left of the Roman Empire. They also set out west across the sea in their longships. They reached Iceland, Greenland and America. From 693 onwards they raided the British Isles. It looked as thought they would conquer Britain, but King Alfred the Great stopped them. England was divided in half between the Saxons and the Norsemen. Other Norsemen went to France. There they were called Normans. In 1066 the Normans conquered England. With Normans in control of England and much of France, the desperate violence of the Vikings became part of the European way of life, but Christianity tended to force the violence into the shadows.

Americans before Columbus

In 1492 Columbus discovered America. At that time there were four different groups of people living there. One group lived in North America. They were called ‘Red Indians' by the Europeans (who still thought that they had reached India and not America). The Red Indians were still in the Stone Age. They lived a wandering life, following the buffalo herds and hunting the buffalo with bows and arrows. Further south lived the Incas, the Mayas and the Aztecs. They had no useful metals but they lived in cities and shared each others skills. They were ‘Cradles of Civilization', but they had not yet invented writing or the wheel. They did have a lot of gold. Spanish adventurers like Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro defeated the Aztecs and the Incas, stole their gold and destroyed their way of life. Since the Aztecs had a bloodthirsty religion involving human sacrifices this was not altogether a bad thing. In this way Spain gained an enormous American ‘Empire', and became rich from the gold.

Medieval Europe

This is the bit of history that everyone knows! This was the time when knights lived in castles, and monks lived in monasteries. Poor people lived in little villages, and weren't allowed to move anywhere else. Medieval towns had walls, castles, churches and sometimes monasteries as well.


The Mongols came from Mongolia in Central Asia. They were led by a man called Genghis Khan. They rode on fast horses, and could shoot with bows and arrows while they were riding along. If people surrendered to Genghis Khan, he would treat them well, but if they didn't, he killed them. In one town he killed 30,000 people; he killed the leader by pouring molten silver in his ears. Genghis Khan conquered more lands than anyone else in the whole of history, but at least there was peace where he ruled. Travellers crossed his lands on the way from Europe to China, where they were astonished at what they saw.

Black Death

In 1346 a terrible disease came to Europe. One person in every three died of it. No-one knew how to cure it. In some cities Jewish people were blamed for causing it. Many of them were murdered even though neither they nor anyone else knew how to cause it if they had wanted to. The Black Death helped poor people afterwards; there was a shortage of workmen, so they were able to ask for higher wages, and the right to move about more freely.

Ottoman Turks

The Ottoman Turks were Muslims They advanced towards Europe. They captured the city of Constantinople in 1453. This had been the last piece of the lands of the ancient Romans. The Ottoman Turks conquered a lot of land in Europe. After this they got weaker. People in Europe began to take back the land the Ottoman Turks had won. They quarrelled a lot about who should have each piece of land as it was recovered. This caused a lot of wars, such as the Crimean War in which Florence Nightingale was involved, and the First World War.


In about 1450 printing was invented in Europe. More could now be written. People could find out about new ideas faster. Medieval knights began to understand the disadvantages of ignorance, and the power of knowledge. They sent their sons to ‘grammar schools' to learn Latin. There were new fashions in painting and architecture, many of them beginning in Italian cities such as Rome and Florence.


The Ottoman Turks put high taxes on trade, which made spices very expensive. People looked for new ways to get spices. Europeans had become cleverer at sailing on the oceans. King John of Portugal sent many ships to explore, and one captained by Vasco da Gama sailed round Africa to India. He made a lot of money with the cheap spices he brought back. An Italian called Columbus sailed across the Atlantic to America. Another man from Portugal called Magellan planned a voyage which went right round the world for the first time. Because of what the Explorers did, Europe changed from being an unimportant part of the world to being the part of the world which ruled it.


In Medieval Europe nearly everyone was a Christian . Their leader was the Pope in Rome. The Pope told the people what to do to get to Heaven. If anyone spread different ideas about this he might be burned at the stake as a ‘heretic'. In 1517 a monk called Martin Luther contradicted the Pope in 97 ways. He managed to escape being burned. His followers were called ‘Protestants'. People who still agreed with the pope were called ‘Catholics'. There were many ‘Wars of Religion' between the Catholics and the Protestants. These wars went on for a hundred years, but neither side could beat the other. Europe was split between the two. Henry VIII quarrelled with the Pope about divorcing his wife. He took England out of the Pope's power.


During the time of Medieval Europe India was conquered by the Mongols, but in India they were called "Moghuls". Akbar was the greatest of the Moghul emperors of India. his name means "Great" in Arabic. During Akbar's reign European traders came to India. He could see that their knowledge was giving them power. Although he could not himself read or write, he encouraged education. He built roads and palaces. He stopped slavery in his empire, and allowed people to be any religion they liked.

Scientific Revolution

During the Renaissance there was interest in finding things out. People learned Greek and Hebrew to find out what the Thinkers of the Ancient World had said. The thinkers contradicted each other. People asked: ‘How can we tell who is right?' Many people, then as now, took an easy way through. They said: ‘the writings of the most famous thinkers must be right. We will believe what they say.'

There were arguments about the Universe. Some of the thinkers thought that the earth was the centre of the universe. The Pope took this view, so it was dangerous to contradict it. You might be burned at the stake. Giordano Bruno was burned for this in 1599.

In 1543 a Polish monk called Copernicus said that this view was wrong. The sun, and not the earth, was the centre of the universe. Copernicus published his book a long way away from Rome, when he was an old man. His book was very hard to understand, and not many people read or understood it. He died before the Pope could catch up with him.

Far away in Italy Galileo read Copernicus' book. He had just got a new toy. It was a telescope, which had just been invented in Holland. Galileo looked up at the sky with his new toy. Very quickly he realised that Copernicus was right, and he said so.

The Pope sent men to see Galileo. They pointed out to Galileo what would happen to him if he contradicted the Pope. They reminded him that Giordano Bruno had just been burned to death for saying that the universe was infinite, and not contained inside seven glass balls as the Pope said. Galileo decided it would be dangerous to contradict the Pope. He said he had made a mistake. He lived happily ever after.

In spite of this, more and more people saw that he was obviously right. In countries where the Pope had power, few people dared to say so. (There were hardly any Italian scientists for 200 years after Galileo) But because of the Reformation it was much safer in the Protestant countries in the North of Europe, where the Pope had no power.

All this was very important. To judge the truth of a statement, people stopped asking how famous the man was who had said it. They began instead to look at the facts for themselves. This process of judging truth by reference to facts is called Science. The change to this way of thinking is called the ‘Scientific Revolution'.

The Tokugawa Shogunate

In Medieval times Japan was a bit like Europe. There were castles and knights in armour. In Japan the knights were called samurai. They were armed with long steel swords. Japan had a lucky escape from the Mongols. A great Mongol fleet was coming to invade Japan but it was scattered by a storm. The Japanese called it ‘kamikaze' which means ‘divine storm'.

Japan was ruled by an emperor, like China, but between 1608 and 1858 it was ruled by 'shoguns' of the Tokugawa family. They were suspicious of the new European ways and tred to shut them out. The result was that by 1850 Japan was hopelessly old fashioned. Europeans were sailing the seas of the world in iron ships powered by steam engines and carrying enormous guns. The Japanese were still fighting with their samurai swords. The Japanese were very embarrassed when an American fleet sailed in to Tokyo Bay. It was obvious that the Japanese were too weak to resist.

The Japanese did not like this feeling of embarrassment. They blamed the Shogun. They said Japan was old fashioned, and it was his fault. They brought back the Emperor. They sent out teams of people to study the most up-to-date ideas. They came back and put them into practice.

In less than fifty years Japan changed from being the most backward country in the world to the most modern. In 1904 Japan easily beat Russia in a war. In the Second World War the Americans had a hard time beating them, and used atom bombs to do it. During the war the Japanese treated their prisoners very cruelly. They had no tradition of chivalry like the Christian Europeans.

After the war Japan recovered again. Japanese electronic goods were the best and cheapest in the world. Japan became one of the world's richest countries.

English Revolutions

In medieval times in Britain the kings made the laws. As time went on there grew up parliaments. People from each area went to the parliament to help the kings make laws. A quarrel began: who should have the most say in making the laws? In 1642 King Charles I wanted to make laws which the members of parliament disagreed with. The quarrel led to a war. The King's men were called Cavaliers, but they were beaten by the Parliamentary Roundheads led by Oliver Cromwell. King Charles had his head cut off. After a lot of arguing it was decided to go on having kings, but to give parliament the biggest say in making the laws. Britain is now democratic, with a parliament elected by everyone over 18.

Louis XIV

In France there had once been a parliament but it had been got rid of. The king and the nobles were very rich, but they paid no taxes. The poor people had to pay most of the taxes. King Louis used the tax money to build a beautiful Palace at Versailles. He and the rich nobles lived in it. Louis and his palace were so magnificent that he was nicknamed the Sun King. He started expensive wars but ended up losing most of them. France became weaker, and the poor had to pay even more taxes.

Peter the Great

Peter the Great. Russia was backward. Peter wanted to make it modern and strong. He built armies and ships. He visited Britain to see how ships should be made. He built the City which is now called Leningrad. He told the people to stop the old fashioned Russian customs such as dancing on the table with their boots on. Peter had a fierce temper, and whipped his own son to death for disobedience. He worked very hard to modernise Russia, but he still could only change the customs of the rich people. Most ordinary Russians stayed poor and backward.

The Seven Years' War

Britain and France both began to conquer lands outside Europe. They put their soldiers in to guard the lands they had won. These occupied lands were called colonies. Each country tried to capture the other one's colonies. They fought wars about this. They fought at sea, in Europe, and in Canada and India. General Wolfe captured Quebec in Canada in 1759. Canada and India became important parts of the British Empire. The Seven Years' War showed how Britain, through sea-power, was coming to challenge France as the world's most powerful nation.

American War of Independence

During the Seven Years' War the British government paid for soldiers to defend the British settlers in America against the French. The government decided to tax the settlers to pay for this. The Americans refused. They said they had not agreed to be taxed, because they had no members of parliament. When the British tried to tax the Americans' tea they dressed up as Indians and threw the tea into Boston harbour. They would not pay the tax unless they were given members in parliament. War broke out. The Americans won. Britain no longer ruled their country. George Washington became their first President . After this the white Americans fought many battles against the native Americans, who they called "Indians". The whites won, and put the Indians in reservations. The "United States of America" now stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

French Revolution

In 1789 French people were discontented. Everyone except the nobles paid heavy taxes, and nobody except nobles had a chance of getting the top jobs. Writers such as Rousseau said that everyone had equal rights to freedom and a good career. They encouraged revolution. Many nobles, and even the King and Queen were guillotined for being enemies of the people. In the terror of 1793 all sorts of people were accused of being enemies of the people and guillotined. No-one was safe, and many were pleased when a soldier called Napoleon Bonaparte put a stop to the killing, and made himself Emperor of the French. He wanted to invade Britain, but Nelson defeated his Navy at the great sea battle of Trafalgar in 1805. After many victories he failed to conquer Russia in 1812, and he was finally defeated by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo in 1815.

Napoleon could be locked safely away on a lonely island, but the simple and devastating ideas of the French Revolution went on having an important influence. Many Europeans were persuaded to believe in ‘natural equality' even though their growing empires were very unequal places.


During these years, Britain was changing from being an agricultural to an industrial country. Machines such as Arkwright's water frame were invented. Factories were built so that things could be made more quickly. Steam engines, invented by James Watt, were used to drive the machines. Life in the mines and factories was very hard. Men, women and children worked long hours for low wages in unhealthy conditions.

Latin American Independence

South America was explored and conquered by men from Spain and Portugal. Because of their languages, which are very close to the Latin spoken by the Romans, these countries are called 'Latin Countries'. America south of the United States is therefore called ‘Latin America'. In 1783 the USA broke free from Britain. The revolutionaries in France, ten years later, spoke of a ‘natural right to independence'.

These things were noticed by the people of Latin America. Suddenly, in the 1820s, they all rebelled against the Spanish and Portuguese, and formed themselves into new countries. They are the ones we see on the map today. They include Brazil , Argentina and Chile. US President Monroe said that European countries must never interfere anywhere in North or South America again.

The new countries were free, but poor. Most of the valuable things in them were owned by people from the USA. These days some people in these countries do things to survive which might be disapproved of. For example they grow dangerous drugs and burn down the rain forest to be able to grow another year's food.


The Bible says that God created the world in six days, with all the different animals on it. In 1859 a man called Charles Darwin wrote a book called 'The Origin of Species in which he said that the animals had all developed (or evolved) from other, simpler animals which had died out. Darwin said that the existence of fossils proved that what he said was true. This idea upset a lot of people who had thought that every word of the Bible was true.

Karl Marx

Marx was worried about the bad effects of industrialisation. He hated the factories and slums which were making life so hard for the poor. He said that the workers were right to get very angry about this. They should get together, and start a violent revolution against the rich people who owned the factories. They should kill the rich, take their possessions and share them out fairly. This would begin a kind of paradise on earth. People who admire Marx's ideas are called Marxists or Communists.


Marconi built the first radio set. From radio came television and radar. These inventions made great changes in entertainment, war and politics. Without radio, space travel would be impossible.


Imperialism is the business of having empires. From the time of the European explorers (from about 1500, that is) European countries began to conquer lands in the rest of the world. By 1914 there was hardly anywhere in the world that did not belong to one of the European countries in one way or another. This was partly because having an empire made your country richer, and partly because the Europeans thought they were doing the people in the rest of the world a favour by teaching them up-to-date European ways. The British in India build railways, and taught the Indian people Christianity and cricket, for example. In the twentieth century the idea of imperialism became old fashioned. Many Europeans were uncomfortable about the inequality of empires. The people who were being ruled wanted to be free. Most parts of the great empires have been given, or taken, away.

Sigmund Freud

There is no sensible reason for biting your nails or being afraid of spiders. Many people do these things, however, even though they know there is no good reason. Freud explained that we have a part of our brain called the 'subconscious' which makes us do odd things. Clever people in politics and advertising use their knowledge about people's subconscious mind to influence the things they buy and the way they vote.

Heavier-than-air Flight

Balloons had made flights from the 1770s onwards. The development of the petrol engine, and the discovery of the aerofoil shape, led to the construction of the first powered, sustained, heavier than air flying machine. This was done not by government sponsored scientists, but by two bicycle makers, in Kittyhawk, North Carolina in 1903. The invention of the aeroplane revolutionised transport and war.


The thinkers of the ancient world wondered about things. What were they really made of? One of them, a Greek called Democritus, said that deep down everything was made of tiny lumps called atoms. The ancient Greeks had no way of deciding if this was a right idea. Most of them believed another idea, that everything was made of earth, air, fire or water. This idea was believed for many centuries, even though it was quite wrong. By 1850 everyone was convinced that the atom was the smallest bit of anything which could exist, but just before 1900 J. J. Thomson and Lord Rutherford succeeded in splitting atoms up. This opened up the whole argument again.

It was then discovered that if atoms of uranium were split in a certain way they would go on splitting themselves, which would cause an enormous explosion. This would be an 'atomic bomb'.

While these discoveries were being made, a Swiss scientist called Albert Einstein was working on problems to do with light. He decided that space is curved, and that the faster you go the slow time goes. Einstein became very famous for his work and he was much respected by other scientists. Being Jewish, he went to live in America to escape from being harmed by Adolf Hitler.

The Germans were working on the atomic bomb. Scientists in America knew this. They needed money to make an American bomb first. They asked Einstein to write the President a letter asking for money, which he did. Everyone had heard of Einstein. In 1945 they succeeded in getting an atomic bomb to explode. The Americans now had a new weapon. more powerful than anything which had existed before.

Russian Revolution

Peter the Great had tried to modernise Russia but he had only succeeded in modernising the upper classes. There were millions of poor people ruled over by a small number of rich ones, who often treated them badly. A man called Lenin disagreed with this. He read books by Karl Marx. He liked what Marx said. He chose a time when Russia was very busy fighting in the First World War. He started a Communist revolution, and took over the government. He shared out the land and the factories. He hoped that communism would make Russia a better country for poor people like Karl Marx had wanted, but millions of poor people died in civil war and famine.

Treaty of Versailles

In 1914 a terrible war began in Europe. It was called the First World War. In this war Germany was defeated, and the countries which had won the war made the Germans sign a paper called the treaty of Versailles. The treaty said that the Germans had caused the war. They had to agree to be punished for causing the war by having the army and a lot of land and money taken away from them. A new kind of world government was set up to stop wars ever happening again. It was called the League of Nations.


After Lenin, the next Communist ruler of Russia was Joseph Stalin. The Russian people did not seem to be enjoying the "paradise" which Marx and Lenin had planned for them. Stalin said they had got to have it whether they liked it or not. He forced them to work very hard in the factories and on the farms. If anyone objected he would be shot or put in a prison camp and made to work hard. Stalin was very harsh, but he industrialised Communist Russia.

Adolf Hitler

Hitler did not like the treaty of Versailles. He said it wasn't fair. He said the First World War wasn't all Germany's fault. He said that the treaty was the work of Jews who had been working secretly against Germany. When millions of Germans became unemployed in the 1930s, Hitler said that the Jews had done this as well. He became leader of Germany. He punished the Jews by putting them in concentration camps. Then he tried to get back the lands which had been taken away from Germany. Britain and France said he could not have it all back, and this led to the Second World War.

World War Two

This was really three wars joined together. In the first one, Germany beat Britain and France in France. The British army escaped from Dunkirk; the Germans wanted to invade Britain but they could not win an air battle called the Battle of Britain. Hitler then started the second war by invading Russia. After a huge struggle the Russians won. The third part of the war was between the USA and Japan which began when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. The Japanese had to surrender when the USA dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities - Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The results of World War Two were that Europe no longer ruled the world, which was dominated by two 'super powers'- the USA and the USSR.

Semi Conductors

These are small pieces of electronic equipment which make micro-computers possible. They were invented in the USA just after World War II. Computers make life simpler and more comfortable, but, by doing work that people used to do, they make people unemployed.

Mao Zedong

The last of the Imperial Chinese dynasties came to an end in 1910. For 38 years there was a lot of fighting, and at the end a Communist called Mao Zedong became ruler of China. Mao wanted to make China into the Communist paradise that Marx had wanted. He did not succeed. Millions of people were shot or starved to death, but the Chinese built atomic bombs and became another "Super Power". Mao died in 1977, and since then the Chinese have given up communism, but they have not copied western ideas on individual freedom. The end of communism was therefore tidier in China than it was in Russia.

Olympics of 1972

This century has seen the rise of international sport; an important part of this has been the four yearly Olympic Games. During the 1972 Games, an Arab gunmen killed 11 of the Israeli team. Israel was started to give Jewish people somewhere safe to live after Hitler had just six million of them to death during the Second World War. The Arabs did not agree that their land should be taken for the juice, and as well as attacking the Israeli athletes they took to hi-jacking airlines and other forms of terrorism to show how annoyed they were.


Richard Nixon was a President of the United States of America. He surprised people by making friends with the Chinese Communists (after they had quarrelled with the Russians), but he is more famous for being caught cheating in the 1972 presidential election, and then telling lies about it afterwards. This was called the Watergate scandal. Nixon had to resign. Nixon's career tells us something about the way democracy actually works in America.


Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of Communist Russia in 1985. Communism had not been a success. Gorbachev knew that Russia could not afford to go on fighting the Cold War. He allowed much more freedom than Russians had ever had, especially under Stalin. He hoped that Russians would develop successful factories like those in Japan and the West. By 1989 Stalinist communism in Eastern Europe was finished. The "Berlin Wall" which had been built to stop people escaping from communism, was knocked down. Gorbachev was soon replaced by Boris Yeltsin, but the attempt to change Russia so much and so fast has resulted in awful problems of poverty and crime.

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Roger Mortimer

A pupil commented: "I hate your lessons! I have to think all the time..."

© 1997 hdj_nicklin@hotmail.com

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