Thoughts on History Inspired by My Discovery of Alan Turing


Photo Credit: Google Images
Photo Credit: Google Images

The issue of school and how children are taught is something we see regularly in the headlines. I don’t have any children and I wasn’t educated in the traditional schoolroom environment. I went to private school to avoid the Kansas City Missouri School District which is notorious now for their lack of accreditation and was noted then for their difficulties back when I was a student in the 90s and early 00s.

Overall, I would say I received an excellent education. I became a professional writer thanks to the skills I was taught in school and perhaps also due to my natural inclinations towards writing. But, every once in a while, I learn something in life which has me wondering, “Why on earth did we NOT learn about this in school?” My outrage at these discoveries comes from a very specific place. I think school is important. But I think a lot of the tactics utilized to educate students are poor in quality. Let me explain.

I hated history class. It was boring. I think we studied the history of the United States 3 times between entering middle school and leaving high school. And each time we studied it, the stories were the same. Memorize these battles. Memorize these dates. Memorize these same people. Read this textbook.

Maybe that’s just high school. But, when I got to college and into my literary studies, I found that I truly loved history and I loved learning about historical events and occurrences through the lens of the writers we studied. I understood historical events and their context because of the way a certain writer was responding to the event and how they chose to respond in their work. I was endlessly fascinated by the Gothic genre because it was a manifestation of mistrust of what was going on in the world politically, socially and scientifically. But back in high school, no one showed me history through this lens.

Let’s take a look at The Holocaust. Yes it was a terrible and horrific event in our world history. I learned about all the battles that were lost and won. I heard about the concentration camps and more. The Holocaust is something I carry with me because my grandfather fought in WWII and told us dozens of stories about his time in the navy during the war.

Regardless, I don’t think you can really grasp the importance of the concepts they try to impart to you in school. As a student, they were just dates and names to memorize, a grade to earn so I could make the honor roll. Now I’m not here to bash teachers or teaching by any means. My qualms are only about knowledge and how to attract interest in topics instead of just lecturing at students. But the truth is, I’m not a teacher. I don’t know the rules and regulations and constrictions they are under.

But here is what I do know.

I recently went to the movie theater and saw The Imitation Game and was completely struck by the film. I had no idea of who Alan Turing was. I didn’t know about what he did to affect the outcome of the war. I didn’t realize the level of control he and the others involved with the project had in determining which battles should be won or lost so that the Germans would not know that Enigma had been beaten. I didn’t know that computers or that the idea of computers began with Alan Turing in the 1940s. This guy basically imagined the idea of a computer before anything of a similar vein entered the consciousness of society at that time. They created a mechanical computer. Their accomplishments are absolutely astounding.

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If I had been exposed to this man, I would have been fascinated. I would have wanted to read more about him and to learn more about the war through this new lens. I would have remembered the names of those generals and those battles much more easily because I would have associated them with this amazing human being. I would have been intrigued by the difficult decisions Turing and his team had to make when make recommendations about battles to lose in order to keep their secret.

Photo Credit: Google Images
Photo Credit: Google Images

After seeing The Imitation Game I was angry. I was angry that I had never learned about Alan Turing and the people he worked with. Granted, the information would have only been very recently de-classified when I was in school. But still, wouldn’t that have been even more of reason to tell us about him? Here is some newly learned (or released) information about this person who did these amazing things during the war that we conveniently are now learning about. I don’t know about you, but that makes perfect sense to me.

Alan Turing represents a huge hole in my education which I feel was unjustly avoided in school. And there are other historical figures who represent the same thing: Anita Hill for one. Yes, I understand some of the reason why we could not discuss Alan Turing in school. The issues of his sexuality and the hormonal treatments that he was forced to take as punishment would have been deemed too “racy” for high schoolers and it probably would be in a lot of schools still today. But the point is the packaging. History by itself is untouchable and potentially boring, particularly in the dry dregs of a textbook. History wrapped up in something tangible, like a specific person or a concept with which I can relate, well that makes all the difference in the world.

My junior year in high school, we were required to do a joint History-English project. We were assigned a topic and had to write a research paper of a certain length which was graded by both teachers. My topic was an obscure man about whom I had never heard a thing. But the topic had to do with Irish history and my dad always talked about our family’s Irish heritage, so I was at least slightly interested.

Turing Machine. Photo Credit: barrettwatten.net
Turing Machine. Photo Credit: barrettwatten.net

My research topic was a man by the name of Charles Stewart Parnell. At first, the history was a little boring, hard to reach and attach to. But then I began to learn more about this man who was the founder and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and a huge proponent of Irish Home Rule. His extra-marital affair with a woman by the name of Kitty O’Shea destroyed his political career and affected the issue of Irish Home Rule and the political system in Ireland.

I was allowed to research this affair and found some really interesting information and learned a lot about a topic in which I had originally had only a small amount of interest to begin with. History alone = meh. History encapsulated in extra-marital affairs = call me hooked and give me another book. I can’t tell you how excited I was to research something so taboo for school and for it to be okay.

Writing about Parnell and learning about his personal life and how it affected the public sphere in which he lived was hugely important for me as I progressed in school. When I was an undergraduate and graduate student, I began to research odd topics in the library and write about them for research papers simply because I wanted to keep myself entertained. I wrote a lot and had 3-5 research papers to write every semester on varying literary topics. By then, I could choose my own topics and Gothic literature eventually wound up being my area of focus. The odd and the strange saved me because, to be quite honest, had I not been allowed to research things like the insanity plea, I would probably have been bored out of my mind.

Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O'Shea. Photo Credit: irishcentral.com
Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O’Shea. Photo Credit: irishcentral.com

As for The Imitation Game, if you have not seen this film, I highly recommend it. I, along with my two film-going buddies, loved it. Benedict Cumberbatch does a great job. I’ve been intrigued by Cumberbatch since he appeared on the entertainment scene and he and Keira Knightley both deliver. Of course with every historical film, there are questions raised about the way Hollywood portrays certain individuals or relationships. But overall, I would give this film a very high rating.

And, if you don’t know anything about Alan Turing or the other people who worked on the Enigma project, this film is a great way to get your initial exposure to them. I don’t know about you, but for me, the next step is to read the book upon which the film is based Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.

 

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on History Inspired by My Discovery of Alan Turing

  1. I think school is mainly there to give people the tools with which to learn and to nurture curiosity. Looks to me like you got them.

  2. I am surprised that history classes in high school are still as uninteresting as when I took them in the seventies. It could be that the wide swath of history that must be covered reduces the subject to names and dates. For me, history comes alive through historical novels. Also, there is a plethora of documentaries on TV and the internet that bring to light the fascinating and human elements of history.

    1. I always have felt that history encapsulated within something more tangible is much easier to grasp. That is one thing I love most about literature. You have writers commenting on what is going on around them and doing so in clever ways. It makes it so much more accessible. One of my favorite examples is reading Dante’s Inferno. It’s a really political piece. He puts all the people in Hell that he hates. It’s really quite funny.

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