Lasting effects

5th May 1995 at 01:00
A SENSE OF HISTORY SERIES THE BRITISH EMPIRE 1870-1914. By Martin Roberts. Longman Pounds 4.75. 0 582 08257 9. SCHOOLS HISTORY PROJECT DISCOVERING THE PAST SERIES THE RENAISSANCE. By Rose Barling and Valerie Boyes. John Murray Pounds 6.25. 0 7195 5186 2.

OXFORD HISTORY AT KEY STAGE 4 SERIES. BRITAIN IN THE MODERN WORLD. By J A Cloake. Oxford University Press Pounds 8 0 19 913376 X. LONGMAN HISTORY PROJECT. RUSSIA AND THE USSR: EMPIRE OF REVOLUTION. By Hamish Macdonald. Longman Pounds 4.99. 0 582 22672 4. Mark Williamson on the interpretation of historical issues.

Critics of recent trends in history teaching who say it is impossible to combine an issues-based approach with serious narrative history must examine Martin Roberts's contribution to the growing output of texts written to support the revised national curriculum Order.

Here is a carefully written study of empire from the collapse of the Mughal, Ottaman and Manchu dynasties to the zenith period of 1870-1914, with in-depth examinations, as suggested by the Order, of India and Africa. By any standards chapter three, which deals with Egypt and the Sudan - "If Egypt gave Gladstone sleepless nights, the Sudan was a nightmare to him" - is a highly competent construction, from the opportunism resulting from a debt-ridden economy before the Suez purchase to the Dinshawai incident of 1906, after which the Egyptians could not wait for the British to leave.

Issues of racial and religious superiority, greed and deception smoulder throughout the narrative before being addressed directly in a final chapter which assesses costs and benefits. Given the weight of evidence, Kipling's White Man's Burden ("Your new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child") loses its sepia quaintness. This book should stimulate informed discussion and empathy and should encourage departments to teach this option in the new Study Unit 3.

A more pacific area of study is offered by Rose Barling and Valerie Boyes, whose questions-based approach to The Renaissance teases out the lasting significance of what began in those relatively obscure Italian towns in the 15th century. The authors attach due priority to explanation with introductory pages that include a useful timeline of events in Italy and elsewhere, contrasting images of the pre- and post-renaissance worlds which compare maps, views of the universe, bookmaking and the drawing of a foetus, and a double-page which defines the movement and locates it in time and place. Less successful is the attempt towards the end to hypothesise about the inevitability of the renaissance beginning where it did; earlier placing would have been better.

Departments that have been reluctant to embark on this topic will be reassured both by the accessibility of such subjects as perspective and symmetry and by its range, which includes the changing role of women, health and medicine, and astronomy. The double-page spread in no way restricts the coverage of important aspects with eight pages assigned to Leonardo although the section title "Leonardo da Vinci: A Renaissance Man?" looks gauche against his achievements. The Northern Renaissance and developments in printing make this a comprehensive account which, by using the SHP template, can be used with a broad range of ability with activities that are frequently practical.

Illustration policy is quirkish with more black and white than the topic deserves; full colour is lavished on photographs of the White House and a modern pedimented dwelling but denied to Van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece.

The new GCSE syllabuses provide the raisin d'etre for fresh approaches to the 20th century, such as J A Cloake's Britain in the Modern World. Study units on key aspects of the period are extended by "complementary units" to provide further breadth, although the distinction does not always explain the difference; the motor car appears as a study unit while The "Thatcher Years 1979-90" is given complementary status.

The task of writing a history of 20th-century Britain which must exclude detailed accounts of the two world wars is difficult but not impossible. While the legacy of the First World War is implicit in the first part of the book, on "Democracy and Society 1901-1939", a photo-montage is considered necessary to summarise the impact of 1939-45. Well-trodden paths such as women's rights and the welfare state are revisited, but Cloake breaks new ground, in such areas as computer technology and the role of the media in the Falklands war.

Cloake's use of a century of statistics is selective and, like his overall approach, mildly unconventional. His detailed analysis of strikes 1947-1981, which is supplemented by commentary on trade union attitudes when shop stewards at British Leyland boasted they could call a strike over the price of canteen tea, should promote lively as well as informed discussion. Equally important for the longer term are the numbers on religious affiliation which show there are twice as many Muslims as Methodists and that Catholics now outnumber Anglicans as the majority branch of Christian believers.

The diversity of the Russian landmass, complete with Cyrillic names, provides a symbolic introduction to Hamish Macdonald's chronicle of this "empire of revolution" from the "contrasts and troubles" of the Romanov era to Yeltsin. This title in the new Longman Key Stage 4 series is a reminder of how affordable full colour printing has benefited the GCSE student; highlighted source material and assessments guide the user through the period in well-planned stages with rich visual sources .

Like similar titles from other sources the final chapter is rushed. Gorbachev was not the "next" leader after Brezhnev; the geriatric interregnum of Andropov (1992-84) and Chernenko (1984-85) was, in the opinion of most historians, of crucial symbolic importance for what happened afterwards. And in recounting those important latter days it was the disengagement from Afghanistan in 1987 which can be truly said to have drawn the line in the sand. This is a highly competent text, but writers and publishers have yet to find satisfactory ways of coping with living history.

Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and religious education in the London Borough of Hounslow.

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