This island story is fit for heroes

Sean Lang

History teachers of the world relax you have nothing to lose but your sleep.

There is no need to look out old copies of Our Island Story, and Little Arthur is not going to come back from wherever he has been these past few years, though you could have been forgiven for thinking so after the coverage given to Dr Nick Tate's recent pronouncements on history and national identity.

An important part of his message was that many history teachers seem to equate any look at the history of this country with a heavily right-wing political agenda.

It surely does not need much reflection to see that this does not follow at all.

After all, one of the most furrowed fields in Marxist historical writing is that stalwart of the nostalgic heritage industry, the English Civil War.

Have we forgotten Britain's long tradition of radical writers and thinkers, many of them historians, from Tom Paine to E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm?

Anyone who thinks English constitutional history is the stuff Tories are made of has never heard Tony Benn debating it with Enoch Powell.

Nor should we be too sensitive to criticism. History teaching has improved tremendously in recent years, not least in the aims and aspirations we set ourselves, but the improvement has not been uniform and we have allowed ourselves to be led up some very harmful blind alleys.

The fierce arguments about empathy badly damaged the public perception of history teaching, and the damage was made worse by the spectacle of teachers and examination boards plainly defending the indefensible.

The ease with which empathy was dropped with the advent of the national curriculum, and is now being dropped from the revamped GCSE, makes the profession's position weaker, not stronger, like Disraeli dropping Protection after bringing Peel down in defence of it.

But the more serious issue was always the debate, eventually (and rightly) dubbed a non-debate, between the advocates of skills and those of content.

It is obvious that historical skills, like any others, cannot be developed in a vacuum and must relate to content, yet however much we now prefer to forget it, that was precisely the proposition we solemnly argued until relatively recently.

I can think of history teachers declaring in crowded meetings that they teach skills, not content, and the Schools Council project elevated the deliberately quixotic selection of content into a virtue in order to emphasise the point.

We reassured each other, and parents, that the students were really studying the nature of historical development over time, but the students themselves were under no illusions: they were "doing medicine" (or, if they were really unlucky, "doing energy") and no student I have ever spoken to who did the course has ever been able to explain why.

The result of all this has been to put history teachers in a very weak public position. "He who defends everything defends nothing," said Frederick the Great. Much of what Nick Tate has said is familiar from in-service training course bar-room grumbles: textbooks which do not provide enough information to answer their own questions, or pupils (yes, and graduates) who have never heard of one or other major event in the past.

Even the use of the h-word "heroes" should not be as controversial as it sounds: all societies or groups have their heroes, but heroism is not an absolute concept, and listing heroes and villains can be a very powerful basis for classroom debate. The Great Men and Women may be on their way back, but they will find the world has changed.

Sean Lang is honorary secretary of the Historical Association.

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Sean Lang

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