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February 7, 2013 7:25 pm
Is this now really the end of history? No, not history in terms of the never-ending passage of events, but “history” as an academic discipline, the subject that is taught in our schools. Reading the government’s plans for the new national curriculum it is hard not to conclude otherwise.
The proposals, published on Thursday, look set to replace the existing breadth and ambition of coverage, critical method and historical debate with rote learning of the patriotic stocking fillers so beloved of traditionalists in both main parties. Out goes the drive to cover a broader canvas, taking in European history and other civilisations. In comes a narrow-minded focus on British history alone – to the exclusion of everything else.
What is wrong with this, you may ask; shouldn’t our children grow up knowing the history of their own country? Well, yes, but they need to know about other parts of the world as well, and not just in the ways that they have interacted with Britain. Understanding the history and culture of other countries, as the present curriculum says, is an important way of learning tolerance and the appreciation of other people’s values. History should, among other things, be about fostering an inclusive, outward-looking sense of national identity, not what looks here like a Little England version of our national past, linked to an isolationist view of our national future.
Children taught by this curriculum will reach the age of 14 without knowing anything about the history of other parts of the world; they will not even realise how closely British history has been intertwined with it. “Britain’s relations with Europe” are bracketed with “the Commonwealth and the wider world”, as if Britain was not actually part of Europe, or as if our membership of the EU was as unimportant as our membership of the Commonwealth.
Worse still, there is no room in the new curriculum for a critical approach to the British past. The curriculum tells schoolchildren to celebrate “great innovators” such as Brunel, heroes of empire such as General James Wolfe, “the Enlightenment in England” (no room here for French thinkers, except insofar as they had an impact on British thought) and “the Glorious Revolution” of 1688, though without an inkling of the Dutch invasion. Nelson, Wellington and Pitt are all there; Tom Paine and John Wilkes are not.
The proposals coincide with the government’s new test for aspiring British citizens. This will include questions on our “long and illustrious history”, a celebration of the achievements of Margaret Thatcher (don’t mention the miners’ strike) and the contestable claim that the transition from empire to Commonwealth was orderly and peaceful.
In the preamble, the new curriculum claims that a knowledge of the British past “helps us understand the challenges of our own time”. But as soon as you think about what these challenges are, you will realise this is blinkered nonsense. The challenges we face are global: climate change, the threat of war in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, financial crises, mass migration and terrorism, to name just a few. How can any child begin to understand why Britain would decide to deploy troops to Iraq, Afghanistan or Mali without knowing the history of these nations?
Worst of all, the document gives no sense at all of the fact that history is an academic discipline, like chemistry or physics. The preamble says, correctly enough, that “a high-quality history education equips pupils to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgment”. But this is then completely forgotten in the rest of the document, like the similar lip-service given in the preamble to the need to “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history”.
Far more central to the curriculum’s purpose is the programmatic statement that “pupils should be taught about key dates and events, and significant individuals”. This is the 1066 and All That school. The modern discipline of history, accurately reflected in the existing national curriculum, is being chucked out to make way for a mindless regression to the patriotic myths of the Edwardian era. This is dumbing-down indeed.
The writer is regius professor of history at Cambridge university
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