'The history curriculum must move beyond the World Wars'

In today's world, there's more to learn from the US and French revolutions than from 20th-century wars, says Ben Marsh

Dr Ben Marsh and Ben Walsh

French Revolution

It is widely accepted that we are in a historical transition period. Now may be the time that authors of future history textbooks insert a chapter break. That is, if the future has a need for chapters. Or textbooks. Or historians.

Many of the established orders and guiding assumptions of the late 20th century are falling away. Whether in geopolitics, economic systems, the movement of peoples around the globe or shifts in the technology of culture, change is afoot. Guess what? We have been here before, between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, often known as the Age of Revolution.

Nothing stimulates a search for useable history like a sense of current crisis. We gather around commemorations, or compete to erect/deface monuments, or overhaul curricula when they intersect perceptibly with our own lives – as we look for events and people to celebrate that affirm who we are. This is the very power source of the historical discipline: not the past for the past’s sake.

It is not our intention – in the age-old tradition – to rail at the teaching profession for neglecting some pet subject area of ours. Learning history is not about cramming content, but about using it to develop skills and understanding. But we do want to draw attention to opportunities in a field that is already more prevalent in existing school history curricula than we realise.

Between 1775 and 1848, much of the groundwork of what we characterise as “modern history” was laid, with the traumatic American, French, and Haitian revolutions, the break-up of Latin America into independent states, and numerous other uprisings. The period saw step-changes in practices of global imperialism, international trade, industrial manufacturing, social protest, European nationalism and print communication.

A number of these transformations originated in Britain, as we know from the more triumphalist waypoints of abolitionism, reformism and great inventions. Many of our regional and national identities, party systems, political vocabulary and educational structures have their roots in this era – it was, in important ways, where history came from.

History that's relevant today

So why has the Age of Revolution become a poor relation? The first problem is that the history curriculum is not what most outside observers think it is. Successive governments have tried to prescribe what schools should teach in history lessons and have had their fingers burned. However, despite having autonomy, by and large schools teach similar things.

At key stage 2, schools typically study some ancient history, the Second World War and the Victorian period. At KS3, the focus is generally on the medieval period, Tudors and the Reformation, then the Civil War. They then tend to leapfrog to the mid-1850s with the Industrial Revolution at its height. In between, they may study some aspect of the British Empire, and the transatlantic slave trade before 20th-century history. At GCSE, schools now study a much broader range of history than they used to. They study long-term units, which trace a theme over 1,000 years or so. At A level there is an immense range of options for schools to select from. While many schools study topics that cut across the period of the Age of Revolutions, it is probably fair to say the majority do not.

However, many teachers are already teaching aspects of the topic. In studying the Civil Wars, empire, slavery, the vote, revolutions, ideologies such as communism and fascism, pupils are already engaging directly with aspects of the Age of Revolution or indirectly with its legacies. We can and should do more to help teachers place these relationships in the foreground, and to draw on the latest research and digital resources in spite of desperate workloads.

Might it be possible not to rewrite entire programmes of work but to flag up the significance of the Age of Revolution within existing programmes then?

This has been a major feature of the Historical Association’s Teacher Fellowship Programme on the Age of Revolution. Thanks to support from teachers, academics and other experts, a cohort of primary and secondary teachers has been able to absorb the very latest academic thinking on the Age of Revolution and it is working on ways to incorporate this scholarship into its lessons. Using funding from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, through the Waterloo 200 chairty, this week the Age of Revolution project was also launched to bring together a wealth of free resources from cultural and heritage collections, all directly linked to the curriculum. The goal is to offer inspiration and to help teachers make interventions that draw on this era and its unrivalled topicality. In the process, we are bringing museums across the UK together with experts and students at our universities.

A popular subject

For those of us involved in teaching history, the present moment brings interpretive opportunities. In an age of austerity and emphasis on “efficiency”, with compressed targets and corporatised universities, a rational assumption might be that history (among other humanities subjects) should be receding gracefully into exile. After all, the subject – on the face of it – seems to have limited throughput into the economy, its empiricism is arguably drowned out by the information we can freely access nowadays, and its pretended claims to objectivity or scholarly authority are no longer sustainable. Or worse, they’re no longer relevant in a “post-truth” environment.

And yet the students keep on coming: history has remained the fourth or fifth most popular subject in recent years across schools in the UK, and steadily attracts some 85,000 students a year at university level – escaping the alarming drop-off that has characterised some other non-Stem subjects.

Amid urgent questions about Europe’s future and Britain’s place in the world, fears about war, migration and economic decline, all in the context of relentless technological advances, we would do well to make what time we can to draw more directly from some of the stories, objects and lessons of the Age of Revolution.

Dr Ben Marsh is a senior lecturer in history at University of Kent, and assisted in developing the learning materials for the Age of Revolution resource. Co-author Ben Walsh is Associate Vice President of the Historical Association, and currently leading a Teacher Fellowship Scheme dedicated to supporting and developing fresh teaching of the period.

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Dr Ben Marsh and Ben Walsh

Dr Ben Marsh is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Kent and assisted in developing the learning materials for the Age of Revolution resource. Co-author Ben Walsh is Associate Vice President of the Historical Association, and currently leading a Teacher Fellowship Scheme dedicated to supporting and developing fresh teaching of the period.

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