Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

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 we are.

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.

First published in the Daily Telegraph, 15 January 2005