Don's contempt for 'Hitler-ised' history

Cambridge history students do not need an A-level in the subject - a sign, says one academic, of how poorly it is now rated. Julie Henry and Biddy Passmore report

HISTORY A-level is so "narrow and limited" that Cambridge University does not require undergraduate historians to have it.

The syllabus has been heavily criticised by Robert Tombs, a fellow of St John's College and reader in history. His comments feature in a critical study of 16-19 qualifications by the think-tank Politeia, published today.

Dr Tombs said the qualification provided an "impoverished historical education" compared with the broad, coherent study provided in other parts of Europe.

The AS and A2 modules make students specialise, limiting their knowledge. This narrowing of the perspective leads to what is commonly called "the Hitler-isation of A-level history", after the most popular choice of topic.

He said: "It is not insignificant that the history faculty at Cambridge, one of the largest history departments in Europe, does not require A-level history as an entrance qualification."

The university policy on reading history says that while the majority of undergraduates have specialised in history at school, it is not essential.

"Freshness of approach is often preferable to historical erudition and a good working knowledge of French and German, for example, is likely to prove of considerably more value than close acquaintance with the more specialised products of modern historical scholarship," it says.

The 31 Cambridge colleges control their own admissions and generally insist on history A-level to do a degree in the subject.

At Clare College, for instance, all the history undergraduates have history A-level. However, senior tutor Polly O'Hanlon said the modular A-level approach which aims for specific goals could limit independent intellectual discovery. "You tend to do a module and then forget it," she said.

Historians warned last year that the new A-level would focus too much on Hitler and Stalin.

Andrew Granath, head of history at Latymer School, north London, said AS and A2 course were "history for the MTV generation - know a little but keep on repeating it".

Nick Tate, former head of the Government's exam watchdog who oversaw the A-level reforms, admitted A-level history might be too narrow but said it was a case of "consumer choice".

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