FROM THE PULPIT
A NDREW R OBERTS
A DATE WITH HISTORY
youth to drop history at fourteen. As a result we have periodic newspaper reports showing how ignorant many of our countrymen are about even the most
D OES THECURRENT publishing craze for history books stem from the fact that History is well taught as a subject in our schools, or badly? Are Britons buying so many history books and watching so many history programmes today because their interest in the subject was stimulated at a young age by inspirational teachers, or are they attempting to plug the gaps in their knowledge left by lazy or incompetent ones? Historians, publishers and teachers all have their own answers, but rarely do they agree, even within their own professions. The issue of history-teaching is certainly working its way up the political agenda. In July, English Heritage launched a pressure group called History Matters, which is an umbrella campaigning organisation designed to impress the Government’s next Comprehensive Spending Review with the need not to cut back on the funding of all those areas of life that connect Britain with her history. At the launch Stephen Fry, David Starkey and Bill Bryson stressed the vital importance of Britain’s consideration of her past in the contemplation of her present and future. The good news is that many people are now thinking deeply about issues such as: which historical periods should children learn about? How many hours a week should be devoted to studying history? Where – if anywhere – do citizenship studies and national identity come in? What can be done about political bias? Must the British Empire really be depicted, as the hilariously hyperbolic Cambridge don Priyamvada Gopal insists it must, as ‘a tale of slavery, plunder, war, corruption, exploitation, indentured labour, impoverishment, massacres, genocide and forced resettlement’, or could some objectivity be re-injected into the debate? And does it need to be so political? Even Prince Charles’s wholly beneficial Education Summer School has come under attack from the Left for inviting Niall Ferguson, David Starkey and others – including me – to speak there. In mid-June, David Willetts, the shadow Education Secretary, had packed a room in Westminster’s Portcullis House full of representatives of various organisations concerned with the teaching of history in order to find out from them if and where things were going wrong. His thoughtful analysis of the major issues facing history teaching, especially in regard to decisions of the Qualifications Standards Authority over the various emphases followed in Stage Three of the National Curriculum, gave some cause for hope. One answer Willetts got from the Historical Association, professional historians, various teachers, David Conway of Civitas and several others was that the last Conservative Government did the country a grave disservice by allowing children to give up history at the age of fourteen; they begged him to return to sixteen. Britain, which has one of the most interesting histories of any country in Europe, remains the only one other than Iceland that allows her
basic aspects of the past. The fact that only 45 per cent of Britons associate anything at all with the word ‘Auschwitz’ should shake us all out of any complacency we might have. In recent surveys nearly three-quarters of 11- to 18year-olds did not know that Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar was called HMS Victory. One in seven adults thought that the Battle of Hastings was a fictional event; nearly a third of teenagers who knew that it did really take place nonetheless thought that Oliver Cromwell fought in it. Fewer than half of 16- to 24year-olds knew that Sir Francis Drake was involved in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, with 13 per cent thinking it was beaten by Horatio Hornblower. There is an open and widening oubliette in our collective knowledge of the past, which needs to be filled. It can’t just be done by historians writing for mature audiences. The best way to connect each important event in history to every other one is through the vigorous, didactic teaching of those dates that we can all agree saw important historical events. When I was twelve my prep-school history master, a fine teacher called Christopher Perry, set us tests of the hundred most important dates from British history since Julius Caesar’s invasion of 55 BC, in which our class would regularly achieve 90+ per cent pass rates. Dates put history in context, give it its special romance, and allow us all to know that Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) simply could not have fought in a battle that took place in 1066. Dates are invaluable tools for understanding narrative; how much more poignant is the Great Fire of London (1666) if one knows that it immediately followed the Great Plague of 1665? They should be taught to all pupils by rote, so that our national conversation can be punctuated by fifty or sixty dates whose significance would be instantly recognised by all Britons. Nor is the right answer to the present over-emphasis on Hitler and the Nazis in schools necessarily massively to downgrade that period, as some suggest. It teaches important moral questions, and at a time of rising BNP and Islamo-fascist activity it is important to teach children the dangers of Fascism in its every guise. Just as British history and identity cannot be properly understood without reference to the annus mirabilis 1940, so the whole 1933–45 period in Germany should be properly understood by our youth. The Second World War cannot be skimped. It might be, of course, that the reason there is currently a boom in history books and TV programmes is that History was indeed badly taught, and that if all the best practices of the reformers are adopted it will soon be so well taught that our fascination for the subject will be satiated by the age of sixteen. In that case historians like me will be put out of business. I wonder.
LITERARY REVIEW August 2006