Sunday, March 22, 2015


....discussion with an academic,  about how history is no longer taught in schools. Having had a number of similar discussions with teenagers and with teachers on the same subject, I find the scene deeply depressing.

The standard secondary school system now teaches chiefly  (1) the Tudors in England  and (2) the rise of the Nazis in Germany, and the Second World War, I started to realise this a few years ago, when a bright teenager told me of her weariness in being made to "do" the Second World War and the Nazis for the fourth time..."I'm so tired of it. I want to find out about the Medieval period. I love history, and I always get good marks - but I'm just so sick of learning about the Nazis again and again and again."  Another said they had been given the opportunity to study Martin Luther King and the American Civil Rights Movement as an extra. "And I thhink we might be doing Margaret Thatchjer and the Miners' Strike".  But that was all.

In primary school children do "themes" such as the Atlantic slave trade, Norman castles,  the Roman empire, the Victorian era and the children in factories, and Suffragettes. Darting about from one era to another across the centuries, with random scrapbook and colouring-in projects.  There is no essential time-line and little attempt to connect anything. No wonder children are confused and bored. I have seen some very attractive work produced by children in schools, and they get them dressing up in Victorian costumes, and imagining what it would have been like to be in a Victorian school, and so on...but they are not given the essential tools for studying history, or much motive for doing so.

In tomorrow's Britain, society will have a very strong Mohammedan input. British history will not be something that is communicated in everyday culture - stories, and  nursery rhymes and jokes and well-known bits of folklore. That sort of culture is being crushed by the overwhelming pressures of the computer/mobile phone/facebook/texting/sexting/soap opera  world where history and family traditions and local community events play no part. Children won't 'absorb' the history and traditions of the country into which they have been born and which in a sense is their heritage...if they are to understand such things, it will have to be through conscious teaching. Will there be teachers willing and able to do it?

At present, teachers tend to emphasise only what is "needed" for exams. "You don't need to look at the section on the 18th century - it's not part of your exam work" etc etc. There is pressure to gain the required number of "passes" for the statistics.

And so we are being robbed of our sense of identity, of belonging, of community.  And then we wonder why the young feel alienated, hurt, and cynical.


philip said...

This is an interesting topic, and not entirely simple. It is right to say that teachers are very interested in exams, but that only accounts for the two years before 16. At that stage, I think it is reasonable to study a few topics in-depth. After all, the "great sweep" approach often leaves much to impressions and communicates a lot of things that are quite misleading, and it is important to develop children's intellects and analytical skills as part of the GCSE syllabus (my O-level, over 30 years ago, was a relatively short period of history). I should say that I don't think the GCSE is very good at present (like all GCSEs, it is a poor preparation for A-level) but it tries. But, there are still the years between 5 and 14 when much more of the "great sweep" can be done. Hopefully this could be covered with fewer inaccuracies than in previous generations when things were sloppy. I remember asking whether "Our Island Story", republished a few years ago, had been corrected for the inaccuracies given that we have learned rather a lot in the 100 years since its previous publication. The people I asked looked at me as if it was a stupid question - the "great sweep" was more important than intellectual rigour and accuracy. Perhaps your next project should be to write a history syllabus and texts for Catholic primary schools! I am sure you would do an excellent job.

Malcolm said...

Historians don't have much sense when it comes to school-level history. Partly this is understandable. The real benefit of school-level history is that it's supplementary English lessons. Children must become confident readers and writers. If for some reason the English lessons are a failure, due to say, a personal incompatibility between the English teacher and a child, it's not a disaster if extended essays are also being written for history. Of course you can't expect historians to admit that this is the main value of their subject.

If you teach younger children about primary sources and secondary sources, all they will hear is that primary sources are good and secondary sources are bad. That's another thing historians tend not to understand. The demands made of schoolchildren are unrealistic, then, when they are not fulfilled, the exams are fudged to make it look superficially like they've been met. It's easy enough to teach children to reflexively write "the source is biased because ..." and pretend that you've achieved critical sifting of evidence.

Teenagers like Hitler of course. Most boys go through a phase where they think it's adult to take the part of the baddies.

philip said...

that is a very interesting point, Malcolm. Indeed, somebody I know quite well who has a first in history from Cambridge but who has been very successful in a completely different walk of life (and whose father is a novelist)once said to me that history basically is like English literature. According to that account, we don't worry too much about whether it is true, we just teach the broad sweep. Of course, one immediate problem one might spot as a Catholic is how you deal with the reformation. Or, as a Catholic from Yorkshire, are we worried about the story of Richard III and that of the reformation being written by the winners? I think it is a genuinely interesting issue and how you might treat it from ages 5-14 is probably different from how you might treat it from 14-18. A bit like cookery, really. If you give 11-14 cooking lessons, you should probably just teach them to cook and not much more. If they do GCSE food tech, it is probably right that they do a bit more than just cook.