Free us to be explorers

1st December 1995 at 00:00
First morality, now national identity - are we asking too much of history? John Fines on the misuse of heroes

Last year in October the results of the lucubrations of the US History Standards Committee were released and all hell broke loose.

A group of American historians, chaired by my old friend Gary Nash from UCLA, and using the services of a large number of "veteran" teachers (presumably bearing purple hearts and demonstrating scarcely healed wounds from the blackboard jungle) had worked for two and a half years to establish the standards.

They consisted of provision for kindergarten through Grade 4 which seems at a glance rather like our original statement for key stage 1, and two major courses for grades 5-12: one on US history, one on world history. The US study contains 10 units while the world has eight. Truth to tell, standards is a misnomer - these are courses reinforced with teaching examples, some 2, 600 of them!

This worthy enterprise is absolutely fascinating and many a British teacher could learn much from it. So why all the fuss? Experimental viewers of the British scene may easily take a guess. First came the hunt for names left out: where is Edison? Then the hunt for those unworthily put in: why do we have to know about Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow, two Confederate spies? Because they were women, of course - and here the dam burst. The standards were "politically correct": white males have no chance, black females, the poor and the foreign are in with a certitude.

Much of the criticism was as daft as that fired against our national curriculum but where it hit home was in the field of the purpose of history. Many of the critics rightly saw the standards as morally directive, aiming to use history to establish in children's minds attitudes about society, ecology, government and law.

These critics had and have some grounds for their anxieties, but let us be sure why they are calling "not fair". They too want to use history but the attitudes which they want to encourage are all about pride in America. No bad thing in itself, I hasten to add. I love America too. Which brings us neatly back to Great Britain and the statements about the purposes of history from the School Curriculum and Assessment Council's great leader, Dr Nicholas Tate (another good friend I should say - not to boast but to warn that in attacking his ideas I am opposing a man whom I respect).

You see, Nick has swivelled between two positions. First he upheld the notion of history as a medium for learning about morality; more recently he has advocated it as a means of inculcating national identity. I wonder whether he thinks it can do both, as well as all the other things like understanding the rules of evidence, looking at motivation, perceiving points of view, critical reading, political and social awareness and so on? I know history is the centre of the curriculum, by far the most important subject and all that, but may we be going a touch far in all this?

Morality is a tricky one, for most academic historians jump like startled rabbits when they hear the word. We have, they say, come a long way from Lord Acton, who put historians practically in the Judgement Seat, dealing out sentences to the people of the past. Nowadays we accept that history is such a complex subject and so much less to do with individuals than it once was that moral judgement has really no part in it.

That is fair for historians but we must recall that we are not talking about history but about history in education, similar in many respects but never the same. History in education may be about producing historically-minded people, but it is not for the production of historians - we have got quite enough of them already. History can only be in education if it has educational purposes - it cannot be there simply because it always has been.

Thus, one could well argue that history is a good arena for children to debate moral issues, large or small, in a helpful way with no damage done. It is the "no damage done" bit that is important.

Let me give you an example. We all know vaguely how deep the impact of marital breakdown goes on young children. We worry about it and think desperately of ways of dealing with it. We know that the direct method - "Now children, today we are going to have a good healthy talk about divorce" never works, never can do. We need an indirect way - the third person: "I've got a friend who has the most awful dreams about being eaten by snakes and he is very worried. What should I say to help him?" The problem is (as we all know) there really is no such person in that case. But there is always a person or an instance in the past - the third point of a triangle wherein the other two are the teacher and the children and the problem is at the centre.

So a little while ago I was set to "do" Henry VIII with a class of six-year-olds. As it stands, an impossibility, but when I had "magicked" them into being marriage guidance counsellors who were about to meet a grumpy, violent and depressed king to hear his problem, the magic worked. They met Catherine and Anne too (don't laugh, they loved my Anne Boleyn) and they worked their socks off for two solid hours with only one small break to devise a plan which wouldn't hurt anybody. And although there were plenty of occasions when the children were talking about their own families or people they knew, no one was hurt or embarrassed because it was Henry's problem at the centre of the triangle, not theirs.

So yes, Nick, I am right in there with you about morality, but I can't come so far on national identity and "heroes", I fear. I value heroes - they exist, I know some living and many dead, but my heroes are my choice, not yours. Just because there is a statue, doesn't mean I have to worship it any more. The Reformation has occurred, remember? And just as I don't want Little Arthur's heroes thrust upon me, so I also reject contemporary crusaders' impositions. I will not admire for blackness' sake, nor for femininity nor for class. If I am to operate in the large world of the 20th century I must be free to make my own mind up. I must be educated on how to do that.

And if, Nick, you take up precious school time with stupid lies about burning cakes, maybe there will not be room to learn the more valuable things. Maybe if you insist on a British - or, increasingly, just an English - curriculum, there will be no room for all the excitement, values and virtues of the rest of the world. Free us to be explorers, not dopey neurotics biting our fingers over whether we dare include St Francis - so un-British, such a crashing failure, and of course his views on capitalism. Say no more!

* The US standards can be obtained from the National Centre for History in the Schools, UCLA, 10880 Wiltshire Boulevard, Suite 761, Los Angeles, California 9000 24-4108 - $67.10 postage included.

John Fines is co-director of the Nuffield Primary History Project and President of the Historical Association

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