Famous battle sites revisited

4th September 1998 at 01:00
History Teaching, Nationhood and the State By Robert Phillips

Who would have thought that the teaching of history would make interesting history in itself? This book exemplifies good history writing - clear, well researched and thought-provoking, within a driving narrative.

Starting in the early years of the century, Robert Phillips summarises the "pedagogic discourse" of history teaching through to the "New History" of the 1980s and the New Right's "discourse of derision" which sought to destroy it. The book then focuses on the ensuing battle over the national curriculum. Phillips analyses the political conflict, cataloguing the muddled nature of government policies, the vacillating between imposition and consultation, and the ultimate teacher subversion of the history orders.

For young teachers who may not have experienced these events, this is essential reading; historians, more than anyone else, know that you cannot properly understand what you are doing unless you understand where you have come from.

For older teachers who, like myself, lived through the Great Debate, the book offers an objective review of the past. I remember a busy time of committees and conferences when I thought I was defending history. Phillips's account offers a slightly less heady perspective. With the benefit of hindsight, we seem to have been more like bit players in a school production - occasionally dragged on to the stage to boo or to cheer.

For Phillips, a modified New History, retaining elements of historical relativism and historians' skills, emerged the victor - though somewhat battered and considerably compromised.

At the time, this seemed no mean feat, particularly when you realise that in 1992 the history committee at the School Examinations and Assessment Council included Robert Skidelsky, Anthony Freeman and Chris McGovern.

It is impossible to establish an assessable hierarchy of factual knowledge, and history is so palpably about causation, development and the use of sources, that the Left was bound to win the intellectual argument.

Like Protestantism in Tudor England, the key principles of the New History had embedded themselves so deeply that the more the government tried to root them out, the more teachers embraced them. Consequently, like Tudor Protestantism, the ultimate survival of the New History appears within Phillips' narrative as both miraculous and inevitable at the same time.

"Why can't we go back to the good old days when we learnt by heart the names of the kings and queens of England, the names of our warriors and battles and the glorious deeds of our past?" asked Sir John Stokes in 1990.Newspapers bewailed the loss of national heroes such as Guy Fawkes and Nelson. But who says that war hero Nelson is more important than Mary Seacole, the black Florence Nightingale? Where you lay your emphasis depends on what history you're tracing, and why. It is inevitable that each generation will re-interpret history in terms of its own values and will choose its own heroes. Mrs Thatcher and a lot of arguably important people wanted to appropriate history to re-establish an ethos of elitism within an Anglo-centric culture. Phillips shows how, by political manoeuvre and, in the end, by diluting the national curriculum in the classroom, we thwarted her. So who's important now?

The New Right claimed they wanted to preserve Britain's heritage. But they missed the point. What is most wonderful about "our island heritage" is its tradition of political and intellectual freedom - which gives me the right to decide for myself who or what is important in Britain's history. And I must teach in such a way as to allow my pupils to decide whether the defining influence in British history was Lord Nelson.

John D Clare is head of history at Greenfield comprehensive school, Newton Aycliffe, County Durham

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