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Revitalise history with tales of what-if

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard university

Why is history so popular on our screens and in bookshops - and yet so unpopular in our classrooms? Television series on the subject attract millions of viewers and history books sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Yet history accounts for just 3.9 per cent of GCSEs and 5.1 per cent of A-levels. Twice as many candidates take social science.

This is, of course, partly because history is not compulsory in schools in England after the age of 14, unlike in most other European countries. But it is also because the subject is fundamentally unattractive to most secondary school pupils. Some fall into the trap of believing that history is not useful or relevant, oblivious to the over-representation of historians in British public life, from our possible future prime minister Gordon Brown to my old pupil Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat.

But the real deterrent, it seems to me, is the incoherence of the typical school history curriculum. A lack of ancient and medieval options, combined with an absence of meaningful links between key stage 3, GCSE and A-level, leads to an excessive concentration on a few topics that are not so much tried and tested as tired and tested. More than half of GCSE candidates and 80 per cent of students taking A-levels study the Third Reich.

We are failing to capitalise on this generation of schoolchildren's strong preference for open-ended games over set narratives. My sons are addicted to Second World War computer games, ranging from simple first-person shooter products such as Medal of Honor to the ultra-sophisticated strategy game The Calm and the Storm. They know historical outcomes are not pre-ordained: sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.

This insight is one that history teachers could build on by asking counter-factual questions. What if Britain had ditched appeasement in 1938? What if Hitler had ordered the invasion of Britain in 1940? If you must teach Hitler, these are the questions that will engage students'


As Philip Roth writes in The Plot Against America, which depicts what might have happened if a right-wing Republican had defeated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940: "The unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned the wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we school children studied as 'history', harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides."

Only by recovering that terror of the unforeseen can we bring the history revival - belatedly - to British schools.

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