A nation needs a past

10th December 2004 at 00:00
History in schools should concentrate on overcoming children's woeful ignorance of their own country, says Peter Wright

It was easy. Too easy. Scottish egos were still nursing a hangover caused by yet another humiliation dished out by a footballing minnow nation. The Scottish media were whipping up a storm over the potential displacement of the Black Watch to support our American allies in Iraq. Then David Starkey, celebrity historian, put the boot in on a live radio talk show by suggesting that Scotland was an unimportant nation before the Union and incapable of even running its own empire.

It was the academic equivalent of Jimmy Hill's infamous "toe poke" remark disparaging David Narey's goal against Brazil in 1982, and it had exactly the same result. A blizzard of telephone calls assailed the BBC switchboard. The main difference was that most of the punters who abused Jimmy Hill actually knew something about football. It was clear from some of the comments made on the "phone-in" that many Scots who claim to harbour a fondness for our nation's culture and heritage do not have the first clue about its history.

Sydney Wood, formerly an educator of history teachers at Aberdeen University, has already highlighted the woeful ignorance of Scotland's children (and by extrapolation of their parents also) on the subject of the history of their native land. A significant number of Scots, young and older, appear to think that James Watt invented the light bulb.

Ignorance of our own history is bad enough in a nation so recently re-enfranchised. It is compounded by an equally unbalanced and ill-informed knowledge of the culture and history of other nations.

The German ambassador recently deplored the United Kingdom's obsession with the Second World War and in particular with the Nazis. And he is right. It is entirely possible and even common for Scottish children to study the war in primary school, then again in S2 (often shortly before course choices are made), then as part of at least one (possibly two) units in Standard grade. Higher grade often requires a study of Weimar Germany and the rise of Hitler. (Many schools miss out the "boring" 19th century bits about cultural nationalism, Bismarck, and so on). Finally, the student who is not Nazi-ed out can opt to study them again as an Advanced Higher topic.

While there is a range of choice, our children overwhelmingly learn the lessons of 20th century world wars and 20th century tyrannies, with a foray into the 19th century to examine the creation of a British and Scottish civic culture by the 1970s. It is a narrow field of view but also a hugely depressing one to offer young people on the verge of responsible adulthood.

As one pupil put it to a colleague in another school: "Why is history so miserable?"

There are those who argue, correctly, that the modern world cannot be understood without reflecting on the processes which created it in the 20th century. Neither can these eras be understood without an understanding of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation and 19th century Romanticism. All of these had significant effects on the world and on Scotland in particular. They also provide more hopeful and positive examples of human endeavour as a balance to the more depressing illustrations described above.

History departments would be able to achieve much of the above by scrapping Standard grade and selecting courses from those offered at Intermediate level, many of which focus on key issues which shaped Scotland such as the reformation and the religious and constitutional struggles of the 17th century. These studies have an international as well as a Scottish and British focus.

Easier written than done, of course. Issues such as perceived discrepancies between the level of challenge offered at Credit and Intermediate 2 would have to be examined and overcome. Some pruning and rationalisation of the current menu of Intermediate courses would also be needed. Perhaps a unit on the First World War might be added with greater emphasis on 21st century issues such as ethnic conflict and attempts at resolving it. For those who absolutely cannot be cured of an obsession with Nazi Germany, possibly a comparative unit on the nature of 20th century dictatorships might suffice.

Access courses of real quality must also be devised at a local authority or national level to ensure that no students are excluded. And there should also be firmer and better planned links with local authority museums services, Historic Scotland and the National Trust.

None of these challenges is insuperable. Once overcome, Scottish pupils face the prospect of a far more varied, challenging, rational and, not least, optimistic curriculum - a curriculum that offers the opportunity of acquiring broad historical knowledge and better informed attitudes relating to the history of their own country and its place in the wider world.

Peter Wright teaches in a West Lothian secondary school.

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