The left should not be scared of traditional history teaching

This post was written by Jon on November 28, 2011
Posted Under: Uncategorized

The average British person is, effectively, historically illiterate. A couple of times a year the media will report on a survey showing that most Britons, young and old alike, live in blissful ignorance of basic historical information about their country’s past.

In 2004 the Telegraph reported that “a third of 16- to 34-year-olds did not know that William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings, while more than a fifth of 16- to 24-year-olds thought Britain had been conquered by the Germans, the Americans or the Spanish.” A 2008 survey found that a fifth of teenagers believe Winston Churchill to be a fictional character, unlike such well known figures of British history as Sherlock Holmes and Eleanor Rigby. Last week Michael Gove quoted an informal 2009 study by Derek Matthews, a professor of economics at Cardiff University, which found that 90 per cent of undergraduate students questioned could not identify any British prime minister of the 19th century.*

The subsequent attack on ‘trendy teaching’ that always follows this kind of report is rather predictable and boring, though I feel probably justified. The charge is that traditional narrative history has been replaced by narrow courses focusing on little besides the Tudors and the Third Reich. History at A Level covers more ground, but does so by treating periods of history as isolated islands of future exam content. The result is that something like ‘1066 and All That’ simply couldn’t be written today; even half-remembering the history of Britain is an anachronism.

This immediately encourages the idea of a return to a full, no-nonsense, ‘traditional’ history syllabus, with all that that entails. Michael Gove said last week: “I don’t believe it’s necessarily propagandistic to have a national curriculum that is broadly sympathetic to our past and our values. Of course, we don’t want our national curriculum to be the scholastic equivalent of the Last Night of the Proms. But nor should it be our morale-sapping exercise in self-flagellation.”

Why not have traditional, even reactionary, history teaching? The traditional way of teaching history, with Britain (or rather England) presented as a scepter’d isle and the globe painted pink, at least provided a full narrative and covered the necessary ground. It gave people a common stock of historical knowledge and, crucially, provided a large, consistent set of ideas and assumptions for the critical to attack.

This is very much related to something I’ve thought for a while now, namely that schools should ideally be a bit authoritarian. Teenagers need a good dose of arbitrary bureaucratic nonsense – school uniforms, assemblies, PE lessons, exams, and other forms of assorted bullshit – during their formative years. It sharpens the mind, and hopefully should endow the school leaver with a healthy dislike of authority. Those homeschooled by their soporific hippie parents in the values of peace, love and understanding have no such advantage.  

Whatever our views on education, we must accept that schools producing university undergraduates who can’t name a Victorian prime minister is something that can’t be tolerated. If the solution has to be ‘propagandistic’, then so be it.

*Last month David Cameron proposed that passing a history test be made an essential requirement for gaining UK citizenship. The clear implication of the above reports is that native Britons who know nothing of their history should be exiled to island colonies for the historically illiterate. Shamefully, this was not mentioned by the Prime Minister.

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Reader Comments


Go, Cameron, de-patriation now!

Written By Hugh on November 28th, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

I don’t see the necessary link between having history teaching of which a large part is straightforward and factual, and having a particular nationalist narrative behind it. I don’t buy the need for teenagers to have arbitrary beauracratic nonsense to react against either. Mainly, school produces an expectation that authority should not be required to make any sort of sense rather than a habit of questioning it.

On producing undergraduates who can’t name a Victorian prime minister, I agree in practice that this is clearly a problem, but there is also an issue with the markers used to tell whether someone is well educated or not. My main axe is that maths and the sciences tend to get demoted, but even aside from that, the markers selected within history usually seem to relate to subject matter close to what the right sees as the main narratives (which is not, of course, to say that the information shpuld not be taught in schools).

Written By Micke on November 28th, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

The text on this subject is Marc Ferro’s ‘Use and Abuse of History’ – a study of history teaching in about two dozen countries and which points out just how much of history – the story we tell about ourselves – is ideological. The Gradgrindian history Gove would emphasise is precisely the kind satirised by 1066 and all that – satirised in the first place because that kind of traditional history consisted of using a pitifully narrow lense to view the past. It was a rote history without analysis, without scepticism and which was monotonously racist. It was in other words like studying the 2 page spreads in middle of the Daily Mail. History teaching today might be a salad bowl – but in being so; in introducing a wider range of topics it makes students aware of the complexity of competing stories, that when taught well make students – sceptical, analytical and curious to learn. Gove’s history is reductive. It will deaden interest and kill curiousity in favour of a drone version – the oleaginous Niall Ferguson version of history – in which the West ‘was better than the rest’ because it had ‘killer apps’ – in which he doesn’t even apparently appreciate the irony of using the word ‘kill’. Winner’s history is of course easier to teach and much more popular with politicians, most of whom seem to regard their main job/personal privilege to be selling their countries to foreign investors – in much the same way that any salesman sells his product, you do so by glossing over any aspects that don’t show the product in the best possible light. Gove’s the false history of continuous progress that Aeneas glimpses in Hades where the last shadow is that of the previous Emperor [or education secretary], is there only to announce that the current one incumbent is even better. Just as most human’s find boasting easier than self-criticism, it’s easier history to teach and consume our victories.

What won’t be taught is the version of history presented wonderfully in Graham Swift’s ‘Waterland’ (one of the best novels of the last half century) that tells you “What is a history teacher? He’s someone who teaches mistakes. While others teachers say, Here’s how to do it, he says, And here’s what goes wrong … you ask – Why teach history? – And what does this question ‘Why’ imply? It implies — as it surely implies when you throw it at me rebelliously in the midst of our history lessons — dissatisfaction, disquiet, a sense that all is not well. In a state of perfect contentment there would be no need or room for this irritant little word. History begins only at the point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret”.

Of course all of the government policy does, apart from annoying people like me and cheering up people who think ‘the slave trade wasn’t all bad, I mean in some ways it was liking going on a free holiday’ – is to distract from the fact very little history is being taught at all. In the much feted academies it’s simply bundled into a ‘humanities package’. Even better than teaching an approved syllabus is not teaching history at all, that way you have people who are not simply ignorant but are also incapable of scepticism you can continue to spin lies of the order of ‘British manufacturing was always doomed anyway, we have had to move to service industries’ which are swallowed as historical inevitably by people who not only don’t know enough, but don’t know how to frame the questions they need to ask.

Finally as side (and from my experience of teaching in secondary schools) behaving in an arbitrarily authoritarian and mindlessly bureaucratic manner is just about the worst thing you can do. I mean really and truly wrong. It doesn’t in my experience sharpen, it simply makes an enemy of the students who’s attention your trying to capture. Quite apart from the fact that for many students school is a sanctuary from home and quite possibly the one place they might encounter adults who will listen to them – does that make me a soporofic hippie? – the aim should always be simply to inspire them (not Good Will Hunting drivel) – but by example. Be the change you wish to see in the world, if you will. Teach the kids your way – they may grow up to be cynics; my way with a little luck, they turn out sceptics.

Rant over.

Written By JWA on November 28th, 2011 @ 11:09 pm

I’d just like to point out quickly that we can have narrative history (which satisfies the criterion of having an ‘overall view’ rather than disassociated nuggets) without that narrative history being Whig. There are alternatives – Marxist history is narrative, as is Herstory and Tory history. I don’t think it would be a huge problem to find enough academic historians – Marxists, Feminists and Catholic revisionists – to argue that these alternatives are all equally or more evidence-based than Whig history.

Written By Hugh on November 30th, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

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