Cultural ignorance is an Achilles' heel

If we fail to teach students a core body of historical knowledge, we are excluding them from the national conversation
15th May 2015, 1:00am
Robert Peal


Cultural ignorance is an Achilles' heel

Recently, I've been making a mental note of historical terms used in general conversation. I described a friend's attitude towards lesson planning as "cavalier"; a minimally furnished flat as "spartan"; and a colleague's work ethic as "puritanical". A friend labelled herself a "Luddite" for her views on classroom technology and "tyrannical" for her opinions on behaviour management. Another friend said he was on a "crusade" against pupils with untucked shirts.

Some may feel that those who pepper conversation with historical allusions are simply being pretentious. However, such terms serve an important purpose. Take the word "Luddite". It is an economical means of describing a very particular outlook, and has far more power than explaining at length that someone "resists in vain the advance of new technologies, much like the stocking weavers of early 19th-century Nottingham".

The use of such vocabulary exemplifies what the American educationalist E D Hirsch describes as a society's "shared knowledge". Through making references and allusions, we are able to communicate complex ideas with ease, enriching our national conversation. Hirsch argues that it is through teaching a knowledge-based curriculum that we can initiate young people into such discussions.

That our national conversation is rich with historical allusion is not an opinion. It is a fact. A search of The Times' digital archive reveals that over the course of 2014, the British Empire was referenced 168 times; the Industrial Revolution 149 times; Magna Carta 139 times; and the Battle of Waterloo 52 times (the last two may have something to do with their upcoming anniversaries). As for historical vocabulary, "Luddite" was used 35 times; "puritan" 78 times; and "spartan" 66 times.

The importance of such "shared knowledge" was recently brought home to me when I began teaching classical civilisation GCSE. This has allowed me to address what has always been a gaping lacuna in my own cultural literacy: my ignorance of classical literature. Reading Homer over the summer was a revelation. Not only do I now have a proper understanding of what is meant by an Achilles' heel and a Trojan Horse, I finally know what is meant by a wailing Cassandra, a lotus-eater and being between Scylla and Charybdis. I understand the origin of the words siren, tantalising and hector, not to mention the name of the Dutch football team Ajax. Increasingly, I'm spotting classical references in newspapers, books and on television that for years sailed over my head.

Such historical and literary allusions are an example of a wider argument about the transferability of knowledge. We often hear talk of schools equipping children with transferable skills but knowledge is just as easily transferred - if not more so.

Take the example of history. Learning about the feudal system in medieval England gives pupils a frame of reference for understanding other social hierarchies, be it the Hindu caste system or Russian serfdom. And learning about the English Civil War involves themes (tyranny, popular uprising, military dictatorship) that provide insight into other national upheavals such as the French Revolution or even the Arab Spring of 2011.

A lifelong journey

I share the belief of many teachers that schools should develop "lifelong learners", but it is through giving pupils transferable knowledge that we will best achieve this aim. Existing knowledge gives pupils the mental architecture to acquire new knowledge. As the Classics teacher A C Benson wrote in his 1902 book The Schoolmaster, a well-educated child is one who "knows enough to want to know more".

This is one reason why I do not oppose the teaching of predominantly British history in schools. Were we given the luxury of infinite time, it would be marvellous to teach children all of world history, from Plato to Nato. However, as in all subjects, teaching time in history is squeezed. Most pupils in this country have just three years of compulsory history teaching from a specialist teacher at the beginning of secondary school, often for only one hour a week.

The idea of focusing on UK history is frequently parodied as chauvinistic. In 2013, Sir Richard Evans, regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge, condemned the focus of England's new national curriculum as "rote learning of the patriotic stocking-fillers so beloved of traditionalists".

I disagree. There is a world of difference between learning about British history and celebrating it. Too often it is assumed that the former must mean the latter. However, I don't see how teaching pupils about Cromwell in Ireland, the transatlantic slave trade or the Boer War could leave them with anything but a sense of distaste for our past. Whether one celebrates or bemoans what occurred is of secondary importance: the vital point is that pupils should know about it.

As for those who claim that this history isn't relevant to national life in 2015, they strike me as so many King Canutes trying in vain to hold back the tide. In recent years, the news has been awash with British history, from the runaway success of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall to Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony and Richard III being found in a Leicester car park.

If we don't empower pupils to understand historical events, we exclude them from taking part in intelligent conversation. Meanwhile, children at private schools, or from families with a high level of cultural literacy, will be initiated into such public debates regardless. As Hirsch argues: "To withhold traditional culture from the school the name of progressive ideas is in fact an unprogressive action that helps preserve the political and economic status quo."

I believe there will always be a space for a nation's cultural heritage on the school curriculum. Call me a Victorian, a jingoist or a Luddite. Compare me to Thomas Gradgrind. Heck, you can even call me a Pharisee. But know that it is the teaching of a traditional curriculum that will allow future generations of schoolchildren to understand such allusions.

Robert Peal is a teacher at the West London Free School and author of Progressively Worse: the burden of bad ideas in British schools

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