Talking to a friend recently about the gaps in my knowledge, especially my historical knowledge, he advised that A Level textbooks were the perfect starting point for the ‘reasonably educated person’ to learn more. He was right! I put it to the test with history since this is the subject that interests me still and which, along with English, was the subject I most loved at school.
The idea is to read an A Level text-book as a good introduction to the subject in hand and then, should you want more, move on to more detailed books on the subject. The good thing is that many books take an angle or deal with a specific part of a subject, often so that historians can distinguish their work from others. A Level textbooks have the breadth, the depth can be found elsewhere.
To start, I picked the Korean and Vietnam wars. This is a part of history I have never studied, think I know a little about, and want to know more. The ‘Access to History’ series, published by Hodder Education, is excellent for my purposes. The volume on ‘The USA in Asia’ by Vivienne Sanders covers both wars and puts them in the context of Cold,War anxieties.
The wider concerns of US Presidents and the mood of the public are well covered. It is worth remembering the mood music of the times when looking at events, it is too easy to see things with the benefit of hindsight. This is what Vivienne Sanders does best, she reminds us of the context within which key decisions were made.
There are parts of the book which give guidance on how to answer exam questions. I read these, too, enjoying the fact that I don’t have to face an exam myself; I took my A Level history in the 70s! It is interesting to see what standard our current students have to reach. It is the domain of governments to decry falling standards; how lucky we are to have politicians to fix things for us! From what I can see, the demands of A Level history are as high as ever.
This volume sent me to different sources to find out about the Vietnam War, of which I knew very little, and I have my next text-book ready to read. ‘Politics, Presidency and Society in the USA, 1968-2001’ is next on my radar, also written by Vivienne Sanders. I intend to move on to the fight for Indian Independence after that.
Obviously, there are subjects where A Level textbooks would be far too advanced but I pay tribute to the friend who set me off on this particular path.