The use and abuse of history
Those complaining about Michael Gove’s new history curriculum are driven by a philistine obsession with skills over knowledge.
Education secretary Michael Gove’s new national history curriculum has prompted a great deal of criticism. A number of critics claim that it represents a reversion to old-fashioned Victorian rote learning. Some historians have decried the curriculum on the grounds that it is too patriotic, too insular, and indifferent to the history of other people. Others contend that the curriculum is simply irrelevant to the lives of pupils.
The content of the history curriculum is obviously a legitimate object of debate. Questions as to whether it should focus on a story of kings and queens, for example, or on people’s struggles, or the hidden history of minorities, show that it is a highly contested area. One can, in principle, offer a compelling critique of Gove’s new curriculum on intellectual, ideological and moral grounds. After all, every historian has their favourite period and every campaigner their favourite cause. Debates about what kind of history should be taught can also provide a useful means for gaining clarity about society’s relation to the past.
Unfortunately, the current debate surrounding the new history curriculum is not so much about its intellectual content as how it should be taught. So when Richard Evans, the Regius professor of history at Cambridge, denounced the curriculum because it allegedly sought to restore the ‘rote learning of the patriotic stocking-fillers so beloved of traditionalists’, his main target was a pedagogic approach which he caricatured as traditionalist. His ire towards a pedagogy that assumes children should possess a sense of chronology and periodisation, and ought to be familiar with basic historical facts, is widely shared by the educational establishment.
Of all the subjects taught in the school curriculum, history is the one that has suffered most from the impact of the anti-intellectual ethos of contemporary pedagogy. In line with the vulgar tendency to promote key skills and downgrade the intellectual content of the subject, history today is taught as a series of discrete and unconnected episodes that are used as resources for developing children’s critical learning skills. The presentation of this modularised and fragmented past is justified on the grounds that facts, such as dates and names, are relatively unimportant. Instead, chronology and knowledge of the past are far less significant than the skills required to use them. According to this simplistic paradigm, skills trump knowledge.
Learning how to analyse history, and being able to draw lessons from it, are important accomplishments dependent on the systematic study of this subject. But such accomplishments – or in today’s technical jargon, ‘skills’ – presuppose a grasp of what happened, a familiarity with different interpretations of what happened, and, ideally, an understanding of why these things happened. Knowledge of history is logically prior to the capacity to use it. Tragically, such knowledge is frequently equated with information and facts, which children can discover for themselves on the internet.
Good history helps children to become sensitive to change and, as they get older, to be able to periodise, thematise and analyse events. However, this intellectual capacity emerges from engaging with knowledge of historical events such as the English Civil War or the loss of the British Empire. The capacity to conceptualise is context-specific and the ability to weigh up evidence is based on detailed knowledge of the subject. That is why what the history curriculum characterises as ‘source analysis’ is a waste of time. Children, when asked to weigh up evidence about out-of context moments in the past, are being taught to play at being pretend historians. When I look at the work of a group of 10-year-olds who have been asked to weigh up the historical provenance of the Bayeux Tapestry, I am impressed by their capacity to imagine, but saddened by their inability to find Bayeux on the map.
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 ‘information’ 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, discrete self-contained stories with no timeline. Schoolchildren are therefore deprived of a clear framework on which events can be hung, and can be given meaning and become part of a wider pattern.
Whatever the weaknesses of Gove’s proposed curriculum, at the very least it assumes that students studying history need to have a knowledge of the past. That represents great progress over the current academic-lite history curriculum.
Advocates of skills-dominated education regard the understanding of the past as having little relevance today. What they focus on instead is a complex, ever-changing and technologically sophisticated world. From this perspective, real history has no intrinsic virtue other than as a vehicle to teach ‘key skills’.
It is important to recall that there has been a long legacy of denouncing ‘traditional’ history on the basis that it is not relevant. Sneering remarks about ‘rote learning’, about the irrelevant lives of ancient monarchs, communicate the idea that history is an outdated relic of the nineteenth-century educational establishment.
But why should the subject of history be seen as a hangover from a nineteenth-century curriculum? Why should a study of people’s historical legacy be represented as irrelevant? Of course, from an instrumental perspective, the study of this subject is entirely unnatural and unrelated to the experience of children. How can the study of sixteenth-century English history be of relevance to twenty-first-century children confronted with the challenges of a hi-tech, globalised world? Yet, properly understood, history is probably the subject that contributes most to the broadening out of the imagination. One of its purposes is to help children transcend their own immediate experience and gain an understanding of how a community has evolved and developed an understanding of itself. It is ironic that policymakers, who are obsessed with training children to adapt to change, actively devalue the academic study of change.
Paradoxically, the study of humanity’s journey through time provides children with an awareness of the complex motives that make people tick and insights into what makes us who we are. Roman thinker Cicero understood far more about the relationship between education and personal development than critics of national history. He said: ‘Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to continue always a child.’ Sadly, rather than achieving its aim of assisting their personal development, present thinking on rendering the history curriculum more relevant and more skills-focused continues to infantilise the young.
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