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 The charge is that traditional narrative history has been replaced by narrow courses focusing on little besides the Tudors and the Third Reich.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.