Let me tell you a story. It’s a story I tell often.
So I was in high school* (this asterisk is an indication that there’s an explanatory note at the end of the post – in case you haven’t seen one before. I know. What arrogance.). I’m not sure what year it was. But I’m pretty sure it was high school.
I was sitting an exam. On Social Studies. Yes. We have a subject called Social Studies. Well, we did when I was young. Not sure how much the curriculum has changed by now. (Probably not much.) We had learnt about WWI that semester/academic year, and a question on WWI duly appeared on the question sheet**.
The thing about Thai exams, you see, is that they’re mostly (and by mostly I mean over 99.99% calculated over a student’s pre-university life) MCQs (multiple-choice questions). So I was quite perplexed when I was faced with this question on WWI:
Choose the most appropriate answer: (goes the instruction… or something along this line)
What was the cause of WWI?
a. a person being shot
c. bad people
d. uncontrolled escalation
Now, as you’ve probably figured out, I don’t actually remember the choices on offer. The above isn’t an attempt to recollect that far-hidden piece of information, rather an attempt to be funny. But you see. All the choices were - in one way or another – causes of WWI. That’s what the textbook said. And the teacher never told us which was the cause. So I got confused.
I must have picked something in the end. In case you were wondering, I didn’t fail the exam. I did quite well on it (as I usually did – the MCQs system favours memory, and I happen to have a good one). I don’t remember what happened after. But I must have asked some of my friends in front of the exam room (ah, what place. What memories.) what on earth they thought we were supposed to choose.
A lot of people have written bad things about MCQs as a testing system. I maintain that it has its merits, but not when used indiscriminately – as in the Thai schooling system. But wait, I was telling a tale. Let’s get back to it.
So high school went by in a flash. Then it was time to sit the much-feared and farcical entrance examinations. I did sit them. But I didn’t go to university. I went to the UK instead. To go to high school (A-levels).
Wait, what? You ask. Yes – high school. Why? Because the Thai high school isn’t recognised as ‘high school’ enough in the UK. So if you want to go to university in the UK and haven’t gone to an international school, you must needs (sorry, GoT language creeping up there) attend another 2 years of high school (A-levels or IB) in order to apply to go to a UK university (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – you get the picture, though I don’t think I know anyone who went to Northern Ireland).
Why did I go to the UK to study? Well, that’s a story for a different post. I don’t want to tell you everything. Not just yet. You’ll have to be patient. Suffice to know at this early stage that I went to the UK to study after leaving high school in Thailand. Where did I go to school in Thailand? Now, that’s a story for a post much further down the line. I love my high school. I will write about it. I will want to do it justice. But not just yet. Sorry!
So, I went to the UK – to a school called d’Overbroeck’s College. (Yes, the ‘d’ isn’t capitalised. I think it’s cool. I make a point of never capitalising it. Not even on my CV.) Now that I think about it, I’ll probably want to write about my A-levels college too. Or maybe not. Hmm… (Ok. Before you start thinking there’s anything wrong with my school, there isn’t! Quite the contrary. Two very formative years of my life. I’d heartily encourage anyone to send their kids there. I’m just not sure if I want to write about it. Some chapters of my life I’d rather keep to myself. You know. Privacy and all that.)
I chose five A-levels subjects. I know. Eager, right? I did Maths, French, Spanish, Economics, and History. I almost got Further Maths AS – I did enough Statistics and Decision Maths modules to channel into a Further Maths AS. But I didn’t do FP1. I did think of doing it, but that would’ve required me to crash-teach myself FP1 in a number of weeks. (Yes, I thought of it a bit late.) And for whatever reason, I decided against it. Probably laziness.
Anyways, I wanted to talk about History. (I’m getting to the point. Sorry, I’m a bit slow today. I’m apologising a lot today aren’t I? Maybe I shouldn’t write this early in the morning. My brain hasn’t yet acquired the arrogant confidence and disdain it usually has (acquired – urgh. English) by the end of the day.) If you’ve been schooled in the UK, you’d know that AS History isn’t rocket science. (Actually, anybody should know that. Stupid example. Let me try again.) AS History isn’t exactly an MPhil on History. (Much better example. Much less fun. Let’s stick with rocket science.)
So, we were assigned weekly essays to write. And these are the archetypal A-levels essay type questions. We happened to be studying Nazi Germany. To give you an idea, the teacher comes in, tells us about Nazi Germany. Scribbles stuff on the board in his perfect handwriting (so far, so Thai). Tells us where in the textbooks we should be referring to. Tells us which other sources we can consult for more information if we’re so inclined (getting less Thai now). And gives us an essay question. For which we have a little less than a week to write an answer in the form of a balanced and critical short essay, which will be graded and fedback to us (now this is really not Thai). (I just made up another word there. Did you notice?)
So, this being an archetypal A-levels essay question, it probably went something along the lines of: ‘Why did X lead to Y?’ ‘How did A consolidate B?’ (hint: A is Hitler, B is power) Something along those lines, with more specifics. You get the idea.
So I sat down in my quiet little room in Oxford. (Which is where the college was. In the town. Not the university. I also have another tale related to the university. It’s a tale I will most certainly tell. But not now. I wouldn’t want to boast (too much) too early. I want you to like me first. Then, I’ll boast – revision 25th Jan 2014: I boasted. Here.) So I sat down and tried to write this essay. This wasn’t the first essay I’d had to write in my short academic life. I’d had to write many essays back in Thailand. So it wasn’t the idea of the essay that was the problem.
It was the idea of having an opinion. That was the problem. As I sat there, brain whirring not-so-merrily along, the only thought that came to mind was: but how can I be expected to have anything to say on Hitler’s rise to power? Shouldn’t others with more knowledge and training in the science of history be the ones having an opinion? Not me? A Thai girl who had barely heard of Nazism before she went to the UK? Surely?
I duly got a ‘C’ for that essay. I think it was the only essay I ever got a C for. I’ve also never got a B. So that would leave A. And yes, I got lots of A’s in those days. Sweet, sweet A-levels days.
So, what’s the moral of this story? I’m not going to spell it out for you. I have an idea. But I don’t want to force it on you. There is an underlying point behind all this. But a point unsaid isn’t necessarily a point unmade.
Having got a C for the essay, I – of course – freaked out. I went all OhmygodInevergotaCinmylife. Thismustbetheend. Yes. I was young and foolish. My panic – however nonsensical it was – did however drive me to my History teacher in pursuit of books to read. Me being the ever-so-diligent student, I thought the solution to the problem must, of course, be to read more. To know more. So I have more to say. In retrospect it was just another indication of how unlearned I was. But anyways, it was for the best. Because the teacher recommended me the most wonderful set of history books I’ve ever read. To date, I’ve never read a more fascinating piece of historical writing. It sucked me right in. And I left much, much more knowledgeable, not only about Nazi Germany, but also about life. I had had a crash course in totalitarianism and propaganda. And in the process, I learnt an infinite more things about life than I’d ever learnt from any other book or any other History course – be it at school or university.
Reading those four books on Nazism (for more info, go here) marked the beginning of another chapter of my life. One with a more curious and resourceful me. I was probably also an arrogant bitch. But that chapter has, thankfully, closed. I’d like to think I’m a more amiable and normal person these days.
Have you ever read a Documentary Reader? It’s amazing. It takes you right back into history – down to the day, the hour, the minute, the second. There’s nothing so wonderful as to read history from the people that make it. Plus, this volume on Nazism was very well organised, with a clear and interesting running commentary to give coherence to the historical artefacts it reproduces. Anyways, back to the story.
*For those unfamiliar with Thai schooling, this is how it goes: 1-3 years in Kindergarten -> 6 years in lower school -> 3 years in middle school -> 3 years in high school -> university [Note: this is the standard route. The vocational route looks something different.]
**Actually, now that I think about it, most of what we learnt in Social Studies was History. I should become Minister of Education and rename the bloody subject (if it hasn’t been done already).