Sunday, 16 December 2012

Is studying history about to become a thing of the past?

The study of history in schools in the UK could be about to become, ahem, history, as students appear to be falling out of love with the subject. A report for the all parliamentary group on history released this week that entries to study history at GCSE have dropped below 30%.

This will not please Education Secretary Michael Gove, who recently expressed concern that many 18 to 24 year olds didn’t know that Nelson won the battle of Trafalgar or who built Hadrian’s Wall. You have to guess that they must have questioned the dimmer half of the demographic since there is a big clue in the latter question.

Anyway young people don’t know enough history, Michael Gove won’t be happy about it; so it follows that something will have to be done.

In its report the group criticises schools for teaching just an hour of history a week to thirteen year olds and for doing so in a way that doesn’t follow a logical chronology. Apparently it’s all Hitler, Henry (the eighth that is) and the pyramids with little to link things together. This, as Chris Skidmore MP, vice chair of the group told the BBC, produces a sort of ‘Dr Who history’ that made it ‘very difficult to generate understanding and a sense of chronology in such abbreviated time periods.’

The group would like to see history included in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) when it replaces GCSE’s and for the curriculum to focus more closely on key events in British history. They fought shy of recommending that history be made a mandatory subject up to sixteen, but it was recommended that citizenship be forced out to make room for more extended teaching of history.

In response a spokeswoman for the Department of Education told the BBC that the government was ‘looking at history’ as part of its review of the national curriculum and wanted to ensure that students were ‘engaged and inspired by the subject.’ Commenting on the proposal to replace citizenship with history in the new EBacc Andy Thornton of the Citizenship Foundation said proponents of the change were ‘defending their own subject based on ignorance of another’s.’ He added that through studying citizenship students were ‘inducted into the social order of the day, empowering them to play their part in its stability and prosperity.’

The teaching of history, particularly British history, is vital, if you hold anything like liberal views that it is a given that you accept the best way of learning to respect and value the culture and traditions of others is by understanding your own first. The trouble is we seem somehow to have ended up in a situation where people on the right of the political spectrum believe themselves to have a unique understanding of our nation’s history and how it should be passed on.

This has produced some truly odd ideas, many of them firmly lodged in the busy brain of Michael Gove. He seems to view history, as he does most subjects, through an odd sepia toned filter, as something carried out by kings, princes and, we might suppose, Education Secretaries with their eye on the main prize, at which we groundlings can merely gawp in wonderment.

In reality the world and the subject have moved on, the teaching of history, unless it is merely to be a process of dinning dates into the heads of students, has to reflect the diversity of experience and origins to be found in British life. As for making history part of the new EBacc, all well and good but something else will have to be pushed out to make room, unless, of course, the new qualification is going to share the sad fate of GCSE’s by becoming a bloated repository for whatever fad happened to be preoccupying the Westminster villagers the week before last.

If, as seems likely, it is citizenship that gets the push then the people responsible really don’t understand their subject. One of the dominant themes in all of human history is how power is devolved from the hands of the few into those of the many. It is a story that is still being played out today in Egypt and Syria and one that may, if we aren’t careful, skip back a few chapters here in Europe.

Young people, and those of us who aren’t so young, should study history because if you don’t understand the mistakes made in the past you are doomed to repeat them; not understanding how democracy works and what we all need to do to keep it working produces the same sad result.

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