Past imperfect

The Right Kind of History, by David Cannadine, Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£14.99, 320 pages

What is the “right” kind of history? The word is highlighted on the cover of this stimulating book, leaving us initially unsure whether it refers to intrinsic quality or ideology. “History wars” broke out during the 20th century in countries as diverse as the US, Germany, Ireland and Turkey, usually over contested issues of national identity, refracted through different interpretations of the past. Much ink has been spilt, some blood too.

How lucky, then, that the English have been able to escape this sort of nonsense! For many English people, nationalism is just a problem for foreigners (starting at the Scottish or Welsh border). A self-conscious nation-building project remains an alien idea: the sort of joke at others’ expense that the English smugly enjoy. Their own history has often been treated in a similar spirit, as though the issues that tortured other nations need not be addressed. Such complacency is no longer possible.

Sir David Cannadine may spend a good deal of time in Princeton, New Jersey, but he cannot be dismissed as an expatriate out of touch with his native land. The Right Kind of History bears his characteristic stamp: cogent, urgent, witty and wise. He has drawn on the painstaking research of his collaborators to give an impressively solid account of the development of the history curriculum in the state schools of 20th-century England.

In doing so he joins a debate led by the right wing of the Conservative party, though feeding on more widespread concerns. Schoolchildren today, it is said, are vacuously enjoined to feel empathy for victims of the slave trade or the Nazi Holocaust without joining up the dots of their own nation’s achievements. So we need to restore the proud sense of national identity that was formerly instilled through widespread knowledge of British history. Such invocation of a golden age, however, rests mainly on retrospective romanticism.

One key finding is just how little history has ever been taught in these schools. In 1890, at the height of the British empire, out of 22,500 elementary schools in England, only 414 taught history. The subject was brought painfully on to the curriculum over the next 20 years but the contemporary complaints seem timeless: “the average Englishman knows no history” or “we try to teach too much, and so we teach nothing properly”. Set against these depressing strictures from above, there are some equally timeless voices from below testifying to the scope for inspirational teaching of history.

Of course, the changes over time have been important, as history would teach us to expect. The shift to a skills-based syllabus in the 1970s paralleled the move from selective to comprehensive secondary schools, and it was then that talk of “empathy” became common. There is a real problem in balancing two conceptions of history: as a repository of facts and a method of inquiry. When the new National Curriculum for History emerged in 1991, it encouraged pupils to learn new kinds of history, for better or worse.

But it is a misconception that it proposed to do so at the expense of teaching a connected national history. The key assumption was that history would be taught in stages for all pupils from the ages of five to 16. But the decision that history should be a compulsory subject only to the age of 14 wrecked this plan by suddenly compressing the work of the final two years into the earlier curriculum. Little wonder that some incoherence and repetition has been the result. Hence Cannadine’s recommendation that what we need is not another new curriculum but enough time teaching one for which a blueprint exists. Here is a book that should be read, not for wisecracks but for the wisdom it brings to the debate.

Peter Clarke’s new book ‘Mr Churchill’s Profession’ will be published by Bloomsbury in 2012

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