Lessons of the past

1st December 2000 at 00:00
The transformation of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich from a sea of glass cases harbouring model ships into a state-of-the-art centre for the new millennium was funded by a lottery grant in 1999.

On BBC Radio 4, Sean Gabb, a commentator from the right-wing magazine The Libertarian, complained about politically correct galleries on the opium wars, the slave trade and environmental pollution. He claimed the museum was rewriting England's story as "mistress of the seas". Particular indignation was reserved for the relegation of Nelson's uniform to the third floor. Gabb said: "Once you bleed a symbol of its history, it just becomes a piece of old cloth with a hole in it." This relic of our "island story", he felt, has been robbed of its historical and national significance by the museum's concerns to update itself.

Such conflicts go to the heart of our national identity: are we still British subjects, are we citizens or is it possible to be both?

History has a weighty part to play in supporting citizenship. Children cannot really make sense of their identity, rights and responsibilities as modern citizens if they fail to understand how these developed.

At Ernulf school in Cambridgeshire, though joint history citizenship lessons at KS3, pupils took part in role-plays that dramatised pisodes of the struggle for popular rights. They learned about Cromwell's expulsion of the Rump Parliament and took part in a suffragette campaign. Then, having appreciated how hard-fought the battle for the vote was, they participated in a school election for year councils. Their understanding of this process was deepened by their knowledge of development of the democratic process itself.

The citizenship skills of enquiry and communication are already embedded in history. Good history departments share conflicting ideas with their pupils. If adults can debate the validity of the Runnymede Trust's suggestion in its recent report that the term "British" is racist, so can children. That debate is richer in the context of knowledge gained from their history lessons.

Mayor of London Ken Livingstone has called for the replacement of two imperial figures presently on plinths in Trafalgar Square. Critics have demanded whether such a process might oust Nelson from his column as well. Such current debates cannot be understood without reference to the past. Young citizens need to know where they came from. How else are they to make sense of their present or their future?

Andrew Wrenn is history adviser in Cambridgeshire. He writes as a member of the Historical Association secondary committee

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