History - Say no to nostalgia

13th July 2012 at 01:00
Remember, there never was a `golden age' of history teaching

One of the great problems for history teaching, particularly in a nation with as long a history as the UK, is how to select what to teach. Should the main focus be political or cultural? Religious, economic or social? Concerned with long periods of time or with study in depth? Is there much truth in the oft-quoted notion that schools focus on "Hitler and the Henries" to the exclusion of "Our Island Story"? As long ago as 1906, a Miss M.A. Howard, speaking in London, expressed surprise at "how little real knowledge of history is possessed by the average Englishman, or even by the average educated Englishman".

David Cannadine's recent book, The Right Kind of History, gives both a national and an international perspective on the history of history teaching. It appears that those calling for school history to be a means of inculcating national identity are in good company. In 2010, Vladimir Putin commissioned a new textbook giving an "approved version of Russian history" that played down "the excesses of the Communist regime" and stressed "the heroic achievements of the Russian people in defeating Hitler". In 1934, Stalin complained of history textbooks, "It's all epochs and no facts, no events, no people, no concrete information." He preferred history as a cavalcade of national heroes.

One of the questions raised, though, is whether "being able to recite the dates of the reigns of successive kings and queens" itself promotes "a collective feeling of national belonging". Cannadine makes clear that the idea of some "golden age" of history teaching is a myth. Most children only gained access to secondary education after the Second World War, and even then public examinations were largely denied to the majority, who attended secondary moderns. Little history was taught to them.

Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, when asked in the 1970s what he thought of the French Revolution, replied that it was too soon to say. The same may be true of the earlier iterations of national curriculum history. Perhaps those reviewing it would be wise to bear in mind the words of an earlier educationalist, Michael Sadler, in 1901: "Courses of study are inflicted by one generation, not on itself but on its successors, and it is only fair to wait till the victims have come in their turn to speak. They have a disagreeable way of siding with their grandparents."

Barbara Hibbert is a history education consultant and author


Help students interact with history: try channel 4 education's online Battle of Trafalgar game.

Test their knowledge of British history with a quiz from English Banana Trust.


History teachers are discussing how to grab the attention of Year 7 at the start of the new school year. Do you have an impressive opener that gets pupils excited about history?

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