The teaching of history

Posted by Helen Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Another topic that needs to be covered at length on this site (and if any reader wants to pitch in with a few paragraphs, these will be much appreciated). To start with, here are Sir David Cannadine's comments as his new book, The Right Kind of History, is published. It is a history of history teaching in this country and a review copy is on its way to me. So I shall be able to write about the book itself.

In the meantime, what has Sir David to say about the present and the future of history teaching in British schools?

According to the BBC and the Guardian, he is advising the government, who is carrying out a revision of the curriculum to leave the content alone but to make the subject compulsory right until 16.

If we must have a compulsory curriculum then history should most definitely be part of it but is there any point in making it compulsory if the content is so poor. If children learn no dates, no consecutive knowledge of events and acquire no understanding of what happened in this or any other country then making that compulsory will not improve matters. Those of us who are not Princeton professors know that, in this case, Michael Gove happens to be right, when he says that
A generation of children knows virtually nothing about British history and leaves school "woefully under-nourished", Education Secretary Michael Gove warned today.

Even university students studying the subject are failing to recall basic historical facts, he said. Mr Gove said that around half of young people were unaware that Nelson led the British to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, or that the Romans built Hadrian's Wall.
Even if they happen to have heard of those particular facts they rarely have an idea of which of them came first as history is taught, if at all, in bits and unrelated pieces. Time, surely, to take the problem seriously. Perhaps, my idea of setting up a school or college that taught only history to all those who are willing to pay should be thought about more seriously.


  1. Of the many good threads to be explored in this post, a philosophical conundrum is whether it is better to be taught no history as to being taught bad history. Without any great reflexion, I would have to say the former is preferable, as it must be far easier starting with a blank slate than trying to erase the bad history which comes to informs a person’s judgements and world-view.

    Of course, this is really a false choice, as surely the right answer — in as far as one is available in a subject as open to subjective interpretation as history arguably is — is to teach good history from the beginning.

    Reading TH’s post, I could not help but recall what Disraeli said of his wife, Mary-Anne, that she ‘is an excellent creature, but could never remember which came first, the Greeks or the Romans.’

  2. Helen Says:
  3. On the whole I am inclined to the better no history than bad history school of thought, not least because, as I found out from younger colleagues, bad teaching of history leaves people with a dislike for the subject. The idea that bad teaching should be made compulsory till 16 is a difficult proposition to argue. The question then morphs into the next double one: what is "good" history teaching and how do we get there from here.

  4. Surely this "better no history" than "bad history" view could be applied to any academic subject. For example, I often hear people say that they were put off Shakespeare by studying him at school. When I suggest that they try to approach Shakespeare afresh by reading some of his plays that they didn't do at school or studying his sonnets, they just say they are not interested. I feel that often people say they were put off a subject at school when they are not prepared to put any intellectual effort into tackling it.

    I too am concerned about the abandonment of the narrative drive of history and the teaching of random modules. Studying history teaches us that events can have repercussions that last for decades, even centuries. From actions come consequences - that is an important moral lesson, which is lost if you just skip backwards and forwards in time.

  5. Helen Says:
  6. Of course, children are frequently put off whatever they have to learn at school and do not bother to find out any more. The teaching of Shakespeare is a very good example. The only time one sees British young(ish) people at a Shakespeare production is when they are brought along en masse because the play in question is the one on the syllabus.

    On the other hand, people DO go and see Shakespeare and they DO watch TV programmes about history, many of them highly informative ones. I recall interviewing Andrew Roberts for the printed Journal and he said that the lack of sensible history teaching in schools meant that people like him did rather well in print and on TV.

    Like you Charlotte, I find the idea of history being taught in random modules deeply wrong. It gives one no idea of what is going on and bores pupils. So nothing much is gained and a good deal is lost. Making that sort of teaching compulsory till 16 would not solve any problems.

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