History without the flag-waving;Secondary

12th June 1998 at 01:00
While the experts wrestle over the definition of a 'good citizen' in the new millennium, Andrew Wrenn insists that an informed, critical and objective overview of history is the first step for our fledgling citizens

The Japanese woman knelt reverently before the solemn array of red poppies, head bowed, hands clasped in silent prayer. Not the kind of scene you expect to witness on Remembrance Sunday in Britain, but then Nabuko Kosuge is no ordinary Japanese woman.

This historian was paying her respects at Cambridge City Cemetery in a brave and public act of reconciliation stemming from her Christian faith. She is prepared to confront the truth about her country's past and has laboured tirelessly to force an admission of the atrocities committed under Japanese rule in the 1930s and 1940s.

Since 1945, Japanese textbooks have displayed a selective amnesia, choosing to remember Nagasaki and Hiroshima while forgetting much else, such as the rape, mutilation and murder of thousands of women at Nanking in 1937; or the biological experiments carried out on unwilling victims in Manchuria in the Second World War. The campaign by Ms Kosuge and other historians to inform the Japanese public of war crimes has played an important part in forcing some official apologies from the government (though not from the Emperor on his recent visit to Britain) - and in enlightening Japanese pupils of the 1990s Here in Britain, the vital role history in school has to play in empowering young people to think of themselves as "active citizens" has been highlighted by the initial report of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's citizenship working party, which will reach its conclusions next month.

The report emphasises the need to cultivate "active, informed, critical and responsible citizens" with an "awareness of world affairs and global issues".

But unless the rhetoric is matched by carefully considered teaching strategies, we risk foisting on a future generation of students a return to the stale current affairs diet of the past .

Several models of delivering a "politically literate citizenry" exist in the best practice of national curriculum and post-14 history teaching. The QCA report speaks of the need "to find or restore a sense of common citizenship", and one that leaves room for the variety of communities to which individuals belong.

Young people must be taught the history of development and conflict that led to the Britain of today. An adolescent in an all-white rural area needs to appreciate the patterns of migration into and out of Britain until now. How else could he or she understand an Asian teenager in Bradford who could describe himself as being from Europe and Yorkshire while sharing the dual heritage of an English upbringing within a fourth-generation Ban-gladeshi family?

Many in England find it confusing when an Ulster protestant defines himself as British and Irish while vigorously opposing Irish unity. Again, it is impossible to make sense of this without tracing the history of Ireland and its relationship with the United Kingdom. An appreciation of "cultural diversity" and a knowledge of how this developed will be vital as constitutional reform forces the pace of change within the country.

Would reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, last year seem more explicable within some historical contexts? These contexts might include the rise of mass media, the popular appeal of the Princess as an apparent victim of social ills afflicting the whole of society (such as divorce), and national trauma experienced at times of crisis in past generations. Was the collective grief really so much stronger than that felt, say, at the death of Queen Victoria?

National controversies such as that surrounding the Millennium Dome should also be seen in the light of past events such as the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain 100 years later. The debate about cost, purpose and what to put in the Dome go to the heart of the common identity we are all supposed to share.

Bradford University philosopher Professor Anthony O'Hear recently criticised "Diana's personal canonisation" and attacked what he saw as "the elevation of feeling, image and spontaneity over reason, reality and restraint". The debate that resulted begs the question of what kind of country Britain is and therefore what form of citizenship we want to promote. The marketing of Britain as "Cool Britannia" is much more than political candyfloss.

A knowledge of Britain's place in world history is also vital to our common citizenship. How else can young people make sense of Tony Blair's apology for the Irish potato famine or Bill Clinton's apology in Uganda for white American participation in slavery? Only with a knowledge of history can controversies on issues such as the hoarding of Nazi gold by Swiss banks or Daniel Goldhagen's accusations about the depth of German complicity in the Holocaust be understood.

None of these are purely academic issues. They affect the way nations define themselves. The Japanese have had to adjust their collective self-image.

Whether we like it or not, our citizenship is directly shaped by the way we perceive our past.

It is not enough for young people simply to be taught about such topics. The citizenship working party rightly says citizenship teaching should be "encouraging independence of thought" and giving "critical capacities to weigh evidence before speaking and acting". Modern history teaching methods can equip young people to analyse and think for themselves. The skill of examining differing interpretations of the same events or evidence readily lends itself to critical thinking.

Thus primary children can consider whether the British Museum is entitled to keep the Elgin marbles; Year 7 pupils often discuss the reputation of King John as part of the study into medieval realms; Year 9s can put themselves in the place of Germans touring the Imperial War Museum and imagine how they might react; and GCSE students search the Internet for rival Palestinian and Israeli Web sites.

Every year thousands of British schoolchildren visit the past battlefields of northern Europe, each of which presents an interpretation of events from a national perspective ranging from triumphalism to defeat.

"Critical capacities" are further developed by role-plays or interviewing. A level students might take the role of a past political leader to shed light on decision-making processes. Stopping a historical narrative to pose questions about what might have happened if an event had not occurred is another effective method.

In his book Virtual History, Niall Ferguson edits a series of academic essays in which historians consider "what if" scenarios. This can also be transferred into the classroom. Given a presumed Nazi occupation of Britain in 1940, students can consider how the British might have reacted, especially by comparison to real experience in France and the Channel Islands.

Consideration of such issues equips young people to challenge the preconceptions of the present. If handled sensitively, is it not proper to consider why Britain is in a minority in refusing to join a single European currency? Are the appeals to Britain's glorious heritage as significant as economic factors?

Giving young people the tools to search for an objective version of the past will help convert them into the politically literate citizens of the new millennium.

Professor Michael Barber, in his speech on the ethics of education reform to the Secondary Head's Association conference in Birmingham in March, said: "Good education can transform individuals and communities." To do this you also have to be clear what you want to transform them into -- and possess a knowledge of the history that has transformed them into what they already are.

The working party says "contributions of citizenship and history have obvious educational merit". It is practical models of such combinations and their implications for curriculum time that need to be considered in the working party's final report next month.

Andrew Wrenn is a history adviser in Cambridgeshire

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