5 Things Downton Abbey Taught Americans Who Had Terrible History Teachers

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Photo: PBS

By Hannah Simon

Public school is a mixed bag. Some of the teachers are incredible. Others, not so much. When I graduated high school, I knew nothing about the history of the world, thanks to a certain teacher's predilection for personal anecdotes in lieu of actual history. When Downton Abbey came onto the American scene, I, along with my fellow historically-deprived millennial Americans, picked up a few things. Here are just some of the history lessons we were only mildly aware of before Downton Abbey:

1.) The Titanic

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Photo: PBS

What we learned in high school:
This unit was conveyed through, yes, a showing of the James Cameron masterpiece. PG-13 waivers were signed by parents, homeschool transfers forbidden to watch were forced to do busy-work reports in the library, and the rest of us were subjected to a cliché-riddled epic love story involving unnatural red hair dye and blue jewelry stones that would haunt cereal boxes for years to come. I could be wrong, but the only historical accuracy of Titanic is that there was indeed a boat, and it did indeed sink. While I realize the film wasn't engineered to teach lazy, tenured history teachers’ high school students history, but rather to underwhelm the Hollywood community with grand effects and moderately impressive costumes, the movie wasn't that great.

The real deal:
The Titanic was one of the first disasters that affected people around the globe. Passengers from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and even Africa were all killed. 1517 deaths out of 2223 passengers make this sinking the largest peacetime maritime disaster in the world’s history, but that hasn't stopped moony Americans from romanticizing the shipwreck. Downton Abbey shows us British people died on the Titanic too, not just star-crossed lovers trying to live out their stock character lives. Two particular Brits were lost who had important ties to the Crawley estate of Downton. Mary's cousin-fiancé died so no estate for Mary. Houses are passed down from father to next male heir, not father to daughter (another thing we learned – yay, Downton Abbey!). This sets the stage for a distant cousin to come onto the scene. Good thing for Mary it wasn't Mr. Collins!

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2.) Irish History

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What we learned in high school:
The Irish people ate a lot of potatoes and one day they ran out so they had to leave their country for America where potatoes were in abundance in a flat land called Idaho.

The real deal:
Downton Abbey teaches us through Tom Branson that the Irish were more than just potato eaters – they’re hot revolutionary chauffeurs, too! Tom is an Irish Republican, which means he felt Ireland should be independent from British imperial rule. Tom is very much against aristocrats born into wealth and feels the lower class and upper class should be balanced. Tom and Sybil, a feminist, find common ground on the revolutionary ideas of wanting the poor, Irish, and women to have rights. Ireland eventually gets its wish and gains independence from England in 1921. Aiding in the independence of a nation - what's not to love about Tom Branson?

3.) The Roaring Twenties and Racial Tension

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Photo: PBS

What we learned in high school:
The roaring '20s were a time when rich people ran around New York City shimmying in flapper dresses and calling each other "old sport," until one day something happened with the stock market and hello Great Depression.

The real deal:
As we learn in Downton from spirited, nightmare-niece Rose McClare, a carefree attitude and party lifestyle was in full swing after World War I. Rose, a true socialite, loves dancing and chilling with married servants. She tries to upset society and her mother through a relationship with an African American jazz singer, Jack Ross. Jazz-singing African Americans were very off-limits in England in the 1920s and therefore more coveted by mildly royal white girls. Americans tend to attribute tense race relations and prejudice to only the U.S.' muddled past, but European nations have their fair share of racist history. Rose's relationship with Jack is neither appreciated nor condoned. For all the semi-scandalous, norm-shattering actions in the 1920s, racial equality would take a while longer to catch on in England and the U.S.

4.) 2nd Class Citizens

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Photo: PBS

What we learned in high school:

Women had a hard time in America in the early 20th century. They couldn't vote for president and some couldn't even own property. They had to wear restrictive undergarments and have people help them get dressed, do their hair, and basically function as humans.

The real deal:
Talk about 2nd rate citizens!? The downstairs folks in England were born into servitude and had no way to escape it unless they wanted to join the party over in America. Who your family was mattered, and if your family was a bunch of nobodies, you had to work for wealthy people who did nothing to deserve their opulent lives besides being born. Imagine cleaning the Kardashians’ toilets and never having any hope for a better job.

5.) Birthin' Babies

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Photo: PBS

What we learned in high school:
Giving birth in the early 20th century wasn't fine-tuned. Births weren't all successful. We maybe heard about midwives and home births in the old days, but we never got any examples of what could go wrong.

The real deal:
Nothing will drill the lesson of difficult home births into your head like a mid-season shocker death. There's this medical condition called preeclampsia that is no bueno for pregnant ladies. If not treated, it can lead to eclampsia and death. Lady Sybil was correctly diagnosed with preeclampsia before the birth of her and Tom's first child, but denied treatment because Lord Grantham feared Sybil's delivery in a hospital would put her at risk. Lady Sybil gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Not long after, Sybil developed eclampsia and suffocated to death due to a series of eclamptic seizures. Had Sybil delivered at a hospital where they would have been able to mind her preeclamptic condition during delivery, we may have never lost our favorite Crawley.

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Yes, Downton Abbey is historical fiction. But so was my high school history education. We can't wait to learn even more when season 5 premieres in the U.S. on PBS Sunday, January 4, 2015!

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