History is the life and soul of a nation

14th May 2004 at 01:00
If the past is extinguished in schools, a parochial Scotland will be the poorer, says Christopher Harvie

The news that some Scottish schools want to ditch history is sad and strange. National revivals usually imply an interest in "hoo we got from there to here", as Hugh MacDiarmid put it. Not apparently in St Margaret Mary's Secondary, Glasgow, where headteacher Pat Scanlan was impenitent: the decision to restrict social subjects to geography and modern studies was in line with national trends and with the school's curricular strategy (TESS, April 23).

Orwellian-sounding language for an Orwellian proposal: history was the one thing Winston Smith could cling on to in 1984, when the Party re-engineered politics and the language. History teachers started me in my own career - Lewis Lawson of Kelso in particular with his insistence that history started local and finished global.

Yet, although I have lectured on the subject more or less worldwide, and often to teachers' groups, the Scottish classroom does seem to have gone quiet. What's wrong? Is it the education system, the pupils, or the subject itself?

Two years ago, history was "the new rock 'n' roll". This was London hype, based on marketing Simon Schama's BBC History of Britain, which ignored most places remote from the south-east of England. Otherwise, there was an obsession with the human race at its most degenerate: Nazi Germany, 1933-45.

Not a good track record. In the case of St Margaret Mary's - a school with more challenges than most - there may well be other priorities. But I remembered conferring with Glasgow teachers a few years back, and one saying that in his Easterhouse school what worked wasn't my sort of history - modern studies or labour history - but the time of Mary Queen of Scots: a period so strange and exotic that trying to come to terms with it stretched and enthused the kids.

And it went on to enthuse me, as I time-tripped back to medieval Scotland when writing Scotland: a Short History. Everything from the grain of coriander found in a midden at Dunadd, proving that the Celtic kings traded with the Mediterranean, to the wild Border of the 16th century and its ballads which were the forerunners of the western. Surely this suggests not abolition, but getting our own Scottish act together.

There are problems, of course. Mel Gibson has a lot to answer for, and there has also been a fear that the past harboured sectarianism: an "Old inFirmity" we could do without. I suspect the reason is bureaucratic.

Historical knowledge and aptitude is difficult to measure: it doesn't fit a culture of targets, controls and tests. Yet the loss for Scotland if school history is extinguished will be even greater than the scandalous eclipse of modern languages.

It is impossible for nuclear submarines to rely on conventional compasses because of the magnetic distortions caused by their reactors. So their position is determined by computers which record every change in speed and direction, allowing for the forces of tide and current. This can be taken as a metaphor for history, and why it won't go away. We think we know where we are, but without history we won't know which of the forces that surround us are dynamic and which are inert, and we will be at their mercy.

History is also where we encounter the strange and unique, the dramatic and tragic: Rob Galt in Grassic Gibbon's Clay whose coulter breaks open the grave of one of the first farmers: "Look at that heuch, it once scythed Pittaulds!" History was for the Easterhouse kids a sort of shock therapy showing, as E M Forster once wrote, "how many ways there are of being alive", stirring up a boring everyday and - if well taught - giving it a perspective, testing ideas by experience. If we close this window, what replaces it - fantasy, prejudice, the occult?

There is also a commercial case. We are an old country, and we sell our past. We cater for a million or so foreign visitors a year, and the ones we want to come back - particularly from European regions that might become allies and partners - are fascinated by our heritage, from the peel towers to the Falkirk Wheel. Perhaps a quarter of our workforce will meet these visitors; and indifference isn't a selling point. History, moving out from Scotland to the world, must have its future guaranteed.

A century and a half ago our greatest Catholic wrote: "Man is a being of genius, passion, intellect, conscience, power. He founds states, he fights battles, he builds cities, he ploughs the forest, he subdues the elements.

He looks back into himself, and he reads his own thoughts, and notes them down."

If the bureaucrats have their way, Cardinal Newman's book will not be opened: no pattern will be visible. They may be able to live with this. Our kids cannot.

Professor Christopher Harvie teaches British and Irish studies at Tuebingen University in Germany. The fourth edition of his Scotland and Nationalism (Routledge) comes out later this summer.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today