A blast for the past
I am used to England's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
stating the blinding obvious, but even I was taken aback when its
chief executive Ken Boston recently delivered himself of the opinion
that "the dates of key events in history are an important part
of learning". Way to go, Ken.
Alas, the idea that dates and chronology are insignificant in the
study of history is one of the fashionable dogmas that afflicts
the teaching of this subject. Such dogma has succeeded in disorienting
several generations of pupils many of whom have a feeble
grasp of anything to do with the past. They learn more from a film
like Oliver Stone's Alexander than they do from the classroom.
Talk to any group of seven to 11-year-olds. Many have spent a term
working on a history project. Some know a wealth of detail about
the Great Fire of London. Others have studied the Tudors and can
confidently tell you the names of Henry VIII's wives. Some can recount
fascinating snippets of information regarding the Vikings while
others show off their knowledge of Roman Britain. But ask which
of these events came first and they are in trouble.
Why? Because history is taught as a series of unconnected experiences
as discrete self-contained stories with no timeline. Thus
are schoolchildren deprived of a clear framework on which events
can be hung, gain in meaning and become part of a wider pattern.
Such slipshod standards only worsen a climate in which history is
regarded, at best, as an irrelevant indulgence.
In a recent survey, 1,309 children aged between 10 and 14 were
asked some very basic questions about D-Day. One in four did not
know that D-Day was associated with the Second World War. A survey
of 1,000 under-25s on the same subject found that only six per cent
per cent were able to answer basic questions about D-Day.
Four years ago, a survey of 200 secondary-school children found
that a quarter did not know that the First World War took place
in the 20th century. Nearly half were unaware of Cromwell's role
in the Civil War: 17 per cent thought he fought at the Battle of
Hastings, and six per cent linked him with the Battle of Britain.
Simon Schama suggested recently that secondary-school history is
far too constrictive. The syllabuses, he said, focus too much on
"Hitler and the Henrys, with nothing in between". As an
academic, I have to admit to no longer being surprised to discover
that the only bit of history many undergraduates possess is a few
scraps of information about the Holocaust.
A colleague who teaches an introductory course in sociology, tells
me she can no longer assume that students will know that the Victorian
era was in the 19th century. She spends the first two weeks of term
providing basic information on the Industrial Revolution or when
the Welfare State began.
The other problem is that history is so often poorly taught. Current
pedagogy is obsessed with presenting history as relevant. Frequently
the subject is treated as a form of therapy through which children
are encouraged to explore their feelings.
Even the QCA's new guidelines adopt this approach, advocating "timelines
with attitude". For example, it proposes that children imagine
being peasants between 1348 and 1381 to explore a range of emotions
from ecstasy to despair.
Encouraging children to make such shallow gestures deprives the
subject of integrity and meaning. It also short-circuits the voyage
of discovery through which pupils uncover the mysteries of the past.
The imperative of relevance serves to distract pupils from developing
a historical imagination.
The feeble historical imagination conveyed through the school curriculum
is also replicated within wider culture. As the father of a curious
nine-year-old, I feel continually frustrated by the difficulty of
finding books that can fire up his curiosity about history.
Many publishers prefer to treat the past as a joke witness,
for instance, the Horrible Histories Special series. Other books
adopt the dread mantle of relevance. Alas, treating Jesus as the
historic equivalent of a Big Issue seller does little to provoke
children's interest in the fascinating episodes that make us who
But as long as children are children, there is hope. Young people
have a natural curiosity about where they and their families come
from. They are always interested in how the world began, in where
castles, machines or flags come from. Even six-year-olds are ready
to embark on the adventure of tracing their ancestors and thus gaining
a sense of real history.
And the mass media are not all bad. One friend used videos about
Robin Hood to give his six-year-old a foothold in English history.
Another found the PC game The Age of Mythologies to be a helpful
resource for developing her nine-year-old's interest in Ancient
Greece and Rome. What matters is turning talk of history into a
normal part of family life and minimising the influences that estrange
children from the past.
published in the Daily Telegraph, 15 January 2005