Monday, June 11, 2007

Is political meddling really devaluing the school curriculum?

Is political meddling really ruining lessons as the think-tank Civitas claims and as reported on the
front page of today’s Daily Telegraph?

I heard the discussion on this morning’s Today Programme between Chris McGovern, one of the authors of the Civitas report and Peter Hyman, Downing Street Spin Doctor turned comprehensive school teacher. The strange thing about their argument was that they appeared to describe two entirely different national curriculums for history – the one infected by fashionable policitical nostrums to the point that history has become a bogus subject, the other a highly traditional outline of 1,000 years of British History. Both can’t be right.

The reason for this, I suspect, is not simply that the truth lies somewhere in between, but that the national curriculum includes a strange mixture of both elements. Of course, I am neither a schoolteacher nor a recent pupil – indeed my schooldays are so long ago that they didn’t even have GCSE’s back then. But helping my stepchildren with history homework gave me at least a little bit of insight into the way students are expected to learn.

While they did indeed learn about the Tudors, the Victorians etc., it seemed to me that these were dealt with in a funny order without a clear sense of chronology. And homework projects were rather different from those of my schooldays. Rather than having to outline the key events of 1066 etc., students would have to examine a picture or other contemporary document and then write about how an Anglo-Saxon woman would have felt at her husband leaving home to fight in Harold’s army and then having all their land taken away by the Normans. Or something like that. So rather than what happened, when and why, pupils were invited to make up stories about historical events.

My suspicion is that the history curriculum has become a bizarre amalgamation of the traditional ‘island’s story’ that the Tories wanted when they introduced it and the postmodernist ideas of those who theorise about the learning of history and who reject the idea that we can ‘know’ what happened in the past and instead see it as any number of equally valid stories. (Richard J. Evans’s book In defence of history deals at length with the baleful influence of postmodernist theorists on the historical profession.)

Of course, one wonders also whether the ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’ lobby are protesting just a little too much. Anyone who has read 1066 and all that, whose authors, Sellars and Yeatman subtitled their work ‘a memorable history of England’, will know that there are only two dates in British history that most people remember – 55BC and 1066. The year of the Gunpowder Plot was excised because it was not ‘memorable’ So people having only a vague notion of the key events of British history has a long genesis. Sellars and Yeatman were of course writing in 1930, before political correctness, postmodernism or the national curriculum.

There is indeed a danger in making history about empathy rather than knowledge. But neither should history simply be a story of kings and queens and great men, as many conservative historians might wish. It ought to be possible to give children studying history at school a clear sense of the high politics of British history, alongside the social, cultural, ethnic and religious elements. These things are important too and it is possible to teach them in an academically rigorous way.


Ed said...


You seem to aim for balance but you slip in 'baleful' which defines as malignant and evil.

Interpretations of history are exactly that - and national histories tend to be massively influenced by the prejudices of those who write them.

We should celebrate the educationalists who had the courage to ditch highly partial national myths in favour of teaching the skills to challenge and interpret the 'received wisdom' of conservative history.

It's no accident that dictatorships rely on the rote learning of historical myths.

Tom Papworth said...

History (as with most subjects) serves a mixed purpose, but I would put the top three as understanding our past so as to understand our present (as better to recognise when we are repeating our mistakes), learning how to interpret and weigh evidence, and learning how to structure an argument.

For that, we don’t need a chronological approach, but it does make sense to focus at least somewhat on our own history. Liberals are instinctively suspicious of the State, but that has led some to believe that it is wrong to concentrate on our nation rather than all the other wonderful places in the world. The Tudors and Stuarts explain how we moved from medievalism to modernism; many of the crises that wracked the medieval world have enormous salience for a world where the nation state is losing traction.

Oh and by the way: “Baleful influence of postmodernist theorists” is a tautology!

Stephen Tall said...

The most valuable skill I learned when reading history (at school and university) was contextualisation. One of Mr Blair's greatest failings is his belief in exceptionalism - that we are living in unprecedented times which require unprecedented measures. The study of history usually helps people see common themes and dilemmas through the years.

Perhaps the most malign influence these days in school teaching of history is the total bloody obsession with the Nazis - kids studying A-level will have likely spent four years on the rise ot power of Hitler.

They will probably have spent abolutely no time learning about Northern Ireland or the Middle East (or the USA), however. That's a ludicrous situation.

Iain said...

Thanks for these posts. Ed, when it comes to the influence of postmodernist theory on the practice of history I don't aim for balance, as I think generally it has been malignant, even if evil might be putting it a bit strong.

Many historians have challenged national myths and received wisdom - indeed arguably to do so is part of the job.

My problem is with those who effectively deny the possibility of 'knowing' anything about the past and consider that the practice of history ought to be merely about telling stories, none of which can be considered more valid than any other.

Such influences, I believe are baleful because they open the door to any kind of charlatanism masquerading as scholarship.