Friday, 26 June 2009

Eh-Level History

Some of our country’s “advanced”-level students of history have been complaining about a question which appeared in an examination: “How far do you agree that Hitler’s role 1933-45 was one of despotic tyranny?”. [1] The phrase “despotic tyranny” has caused some upset:
“[I]t is elitist . . . to assume every history student is going to have come across such a term.” [2]

“The use of the term ‘despotic tyranny’ excludes students of a lower ability.” [3]
At least it seems that some of our “advanced” students have learnt the egalitarian ideology well, if nothing else.

“I have been offered a place at Cambridge to study English literature and I was not familiar with the word ‘despotic’ at all despite intensive revision and reading around the topic.” [4]

“I understand that to be an A level history student you need to have a wide grasp of specialised vocabulary but can i realy be blamed for never hearing the word despotic before? I have never read it, let alone had it taught to me and i was under the impression that exams should be based on a student’s knowledge of a topic not on their knowedge of a word.” [5]

One unhappy mother summed up the complaint rather well:
“This was an exam on Hitler and history . . . not on swallowing a dictionary.” [6]
Doubtless it is sometimes difficult to determine the meaning of the various usages of words and phrases. I, for instance, have trouble understanding what “advanced” means.

[1] As reported by Alexis Thompson, “History students confused by Hitler ‘despotic tyranny’ exam question”, News Shopper Online, 19th June 2009. (H/T: Laban Tall, “The Best Educated Generation in History”, UK Commentators (weblog), 26th June 2009.)
[2]-[6] “HistoryStudent”, “JohnS”, “Bexleystudent09”, “cmarie”, “Mother Sidcup”, commenting on Alexis Thompson’s report. (I have spared the reader a rash of sic-ness.)


David Duff said...

They should shoot one in three of them, that would teach them the meaning of despotic tyranny!

James Higham said...

I'm open-mouthed, difficult to convey through a comments section.

Today I was buying some food in a shop and the radio was on. Someone was being asked, 'What's the capital of Greece?' 'Er ... Rome'

Technically correct from 146BC [I refuse to use the ridiculous BCE in connection with a date].

There's little to say though about the complaints over the vocabulary of history.

'Despot' an elitist word?


Thras said...

The same question on next year's exam:

How bad was Hitler?
a) Very.
b) Very very.
c) All of the above.

robert61 said...

Why not shoot one in ten instead, thereby teaching them the meaning of decimation at the same time?

Deogolwulf said...

Mr Duff, harsh but fair.

Mr Higham, is "elitist" an elitist word?

Mr Thras, a follow-up question from the same exam:

Name the other man in history who wasn’t Hitler.

[Answer: Henry VIII; an extra mark to be given for students who deduce therefrom that there were at least seven other men in history.]

Mr 61, a beautiful suggestion.

Anonymous said...

As the solitary Latinist in a largely Greek-reading department, I am swiping the "capital of Greece" bit and retooling it as a cocktail joke.

Anonymous said...

"Under questioning, Attorney Gen. Holder was surprisingly forthright in admitting that...

"...the hate bill is not intended to protect everyone, or even the majority.

"He said ONLY historically oppressed minorities were to benefit.

"This means Jews, blacks, homosexuals, women, etc.

"Holder made it clear that if a white Christian male, including a serviceman or police officer, was the victim of a violent hate crime by any minority he would have to find redress from traditional law.

"He could not avail himself of the triple penalties and rapid government/justice system response given a protected minority."

Fred S. said...

"Despot"... I belive it has two definitions:

Noun, wherein an Irishman places his flowers.

Proper noun, Pol's cousin from Newcastle. Widely considered a wrong'un.

(There may be some as-yet-undiscovered corner of Britain in which these jokes work pronunciation-wise. In my defence, it is late and I am in a mining camp north of the Arctic Circle. Thank you for your indulgence.)

Malcolm Pollack said...


How unspeakably depressing. After reading this I think the only suitable response is to shoot the whole bloody lot of them, reserving a single round for myself.

xlbrl said...

I have no trouble whatever understanding the meaning of "advanced". It is by one hair of a Marxists nose separated from "progressive".

dearieme said...

I remember our history teacher saying "We are going to do the European wars of nationalism. I will teach you Bismark - you will read about Garibaldi yourselves. Keep an eye out for Count Cavour." They wouldn't like that at A-level, would they? We were 13.

Deogolwulf said...

I hear that Chinese schooling is in some ways stuck in the nineteenth century, which of course is why it is better than ours.

Deogolwulf said...

Fred S., I rather like the prospect of being in a mining-camp north of the Arctic Circle. Is it pleasant?

Cassandra Goldman said...


Just when you think you can't be shocked anymore....

Deogolwulf said...

Delightful, isn't it?

Dodgy Geezer said...

It's not all bad.

I have just tested the same question on my son, who took A levels last year, and is now on his first year at Uni.

With no prompting he correctly identified the critical points of discussion - how far Hitler gained power legally, and how far he then operated as a single leader whose word was law.

I must admit, he did not know the precise dates at which Hitler varied the German constitution, but I think his answer was not bad given his A levels were Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and he is currently doing Mechanical Engineering.

Mind you, he did go to a major Public School. It cost me an arm and a leg, but it looks like it was worth it....

Commodore said...

In fairness, the question itself deserves some criticism as well. The terms "despot" and "tyrant" are widely treated as synonyms. (See, for example, the Merriam-Webster definition of "despot," which has it as "a person exercising power tyrannically.") Thus, the term "despotic tyranny" would seem to be somewhat redundant, no? Bearing this in mind, and given that an intelligent student would likely (irrationally?) assume that the question-writer would not use redundant terms, it is certainly conceivable that an intelligent student might come to the conclusion that, despite his schooling, he did not know the "true" meaning of the word "despot."

Magotty Man said...

In my high School, back in south Africa, the History teacher, a cantankerous old bachelor, was nicknamed Cavour.

Anonymous said...

Bookmarking this for future reference, like when some Brit or European starts mocking Americans for being "ignorant". No doubt Americans are ignorant, but it seems you guys on the other side of the pond have caught our disease, and based on the symptoms it is spreading fast.

Seriously, does no one read anyone? Or, I dunno, watch the History Channel (or the Hitler Channel as we call it over here, since Hitler seems to be on there constantly)?

How could anyone have even the most shallow understanding of history without having encountered and learned from context the meaning of the word "despotic"?

Anonymous said...

Er, "does no one read anymore" I meant to type.


“The use of the term ‘despotic tyranny’ excludes students of a lower ability.” [3]

Isn't that the whole point of tests? To exclude the students of lower ability?

The mind boggles.

I'll see myself out.