In Part 2 of this feature, Mr Rollason shares with us various sides to himself beyond the sphere of RI and more than a handful of interesting experiences he had!
Press: Why did you choose to study History and then African History in university?
That’s a great question! My first degree was in history at Warwick University – where my son’s just gone. You know, when you get to university, you will find out that when you get to your second or third year, you get to choose options, especially in a course like history. You don’t just all do the same papers like you do here. I was always inclined to go for the non-British, non-European histories. I think it might have something to do with the fact that I’m not completely English. Anyways, I’ve done some African History at Warwick and my first teaching job was actually in Kenya! I just completely fell in love with the country. It was epic – you must go to Kenya one day. It was just so different from anything I’ve experienced before. Because I was so smitten with the country, I sort of read everything up about where I was going. So I went back to do Masters, and a particular area of interest was in Kenyan Asians, specifically Indians living in Kenya. The majority of the students at the school I taught in Kenya were Indians.There’s a big Indian community in Kenya. So it’s really to learn more about the community in which I worked.
Press: From Joseph Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev, you’re no stranger to historical figures after teaching (or preaching) about them in RI for 16 years. Out of all of those whom you’ve taught about, who is your favourite historical figure and why?
Oh no! This is where I should have something witty!
I think in some senses, as the “victim” of being someone who studied history and taught history, it’s quite hard to have heroes. This is because we know we’re almost looking to be so critical of individuals all the time, aren’t we?
But oh God, should I even admit this? A person I did quite admire is Lenin. Vladimir Lenin. Despite the fact that he’s probably directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of people, I think he was a good man at heart with honourable objectives. The singularity of purpose. Although a lesson to us all is that fixed ideas can lead to a sort of carnage.
I think for everybody whom I might hold up as somebody I admire for one aspect of their life, I know instinctively that there are the other aspects of their lives which are much less admirable. I can’t really think of anybody who does stand out…
Can we rephrase the question a little bit to topics that I loved teaching instead? There are certain topics which I absolutely loved teaching. I did really use to love the French Revolution on the old syllabus. I loved it for its complexity, I loved it for its impacts!
Press: Why is studying History important?
Well, I think history does repeat itself, and I think we can try to learn lessons from the past. For instance, you look at the economic progress we have made after World War II — which the history students will learn next year –, you will realise that the architecture which shapes our entire global economy even today was and is done with very much a view on history. So I think, you know with a certain amount of latitude, we can learn things from the past – thankfully, we’ve lived in an era now of seventy over years of peace and an international economy which we rely on for one another as we trade and do business. I believe that this is largely possible because the people who constructed that post-war order – whether it was the United Nations, the American presence in Europe, etc – they did that having looked at the history books. Interesting thing now, is I think that as Asia emerges, people are starting to learn from South Korea and Singapore for lessons to be drawn too.
Furthermore, I feel really, really strongly in what I teach in the classroom, because the skills, which are transferable, are so valuable, and so useful. When you’re writing papers, when you’re analysing sources, when you’re evaluating, reaching conclusions, you’re building up an argument. That’s why history as an academic discipline is so highly regarded. So many people have done history degrees – I’m not trying to sell history here, but so many people with history degrees go on to all sorts of avenues. This might surprise you, but very few people with history degrees have actually gone on to become history teachers. You’ll find that many people in politics, banking, finance, and all other avenues of life are trained in history.
As much as anything else, history teachers teach communication skills. The skills that we practise on the source paper and essays teach us that we need to have clearly structured and relevant answers, cordial thoughts, balanced evidence, and balanced arguments, such that we are able to reach a decent conclusion. I think you will all spend the rest of your lives doing that, though it may not directly be in an essay format. But, these are the kinds of transferable skills learnt during history lessons, which I think are really valuable and highly valued. It’s nonsense that people think, “What job is a history degree going to lead to?” It can lead to all sorts of jobs! I think there’s a narrow-mindedness to that sort of thinking.
Press: What is something that students and teachers in RI may not know about you?
Well, I think we might have uncovered this the other day, about the fact that I’m half Lebanese? I told this to 18A13A, and then 18A01B afterwards, and I’m very proud of it. The context is, my dad was a very interesting man who left school at 14. He was a tank driver during the Second World War, but he learnt some Arabic during the war, and he fought in a famous battle called the Battle of El Alamein, where the British stopped the Germans from getting to Egypt… But anyway, he went to Lebanon, and he taught English and taught my mother – that’s how he met my mom – and he brought this young Lebanese girl to England. My elder brother and elder sister were born in Beirut, and I was born in England, so they look slightly Middle-Eastern, whereas I’m the most “English” looking out of the lot. Even though I’m very aware of my Lebanese background, I had an almost completely English upbringing. So whenever I taught the Arab-Israeli conflict, I had some strong views which I had to moderate.
Press: What are your hobbies?
Well, this is not exactly a hobby but I can build an oven; I can show you! (Whips out phone to proudly brandish a picture of the oven) I am being a little show-offy here and I am aware of this but I built this in September with the help of some other people. You know, I built this oven out of termite mud! That’s how the bakeries in villages in Sri Lanka make ovens. They use termite mud as clay! But the food tastes like rubbish. (Laughter) We made it and we had to leave it to dry it so that it can hold itself together. I was expecting it to collapse any moment but it didn’t. o yes, I could try making more pizzas in the oven I made in Sri Lanka but as for hobbies, I like to bike.
Next year, I plan to cycle the whole of Colombo. I think it would probably take me about 3 to 4 weeks. My son and my brothers are going to come with me. I’ll keep you updated in July or August.
So… I like my bike. But I’m not a Mamil – “Middle Aged Men in Lycra”. I’m not a Mamil, but I wear some baggy shorts. And I like cycling.
I also do running. Macritchie is my favourite place to run in Singapore. It’s probably something I’ll miss the most about Singapore. It is ironic though, since Singapore is a modern city. I haven’t found a place in Sri Lanka to run, though there are some lovely lakes.
Press: What is the one piece of advice you would give to students? Any parting words?
Where do I begin? (Long pause) Over the years, I’ve had so many conversations with so many students, who would, in a few months’ time, be applying for universities. But you know I think I kinda stumbled into what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a teacher and I really stumbled upon it. Honestly, I didn’t even know what I wanted to do initially. But I am very very lucky as I think teaching really allowed me to do two things I wanted to do: I love my subject and I love travelling around the world. But I’m also aware that it could have gone all wrong because I didn’t always know what I was doing. Anyway, next year won’t be deciding what you’ll be doing for the rest of your lives. I think university is a fantastic opportunity. Don’t just do what other people are doing in the same universities. As often it is the case, many people apply to the similar range of universities and courses, and I think it has gotten more and more conservative over the years. So law in the UK, law in NUS… It might be your thing. But choose carefully.
Here’s another piece of advice: whoever your partner’s gonna be (your life partner), just choose carefully and choose wisely. Because we are all very very lucky, I guess, to have choices. We have choices. But other unfortunate people don’t even have to “agonize” over making choices, so make good choices, which is incredibly difficult because life is changing and we don’t even know what these choices are gonna be. But just, just, just, as far as possible, choose wisely.
Raffles Press would like to wish Mr Rollason all the best in his future endeavours! Rest assured that you will be dearly missed, Mr Rolly – we’ll be rolling with the punches in your absence.