Perils of a future in the past

20th October 1995 at 01:00
Mark Williamson rejects the plea for history books with a sense of national identity.

Modern history textbooks fail to sustain a sense of national identity according to Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Books of his parents' generation concentrated on narrative, made generic statements about the nation, took for granted readers' identification with it and encouraged feelings of affinity and respect towards past societies, he claimed recently in a speech in York.

I have in front of me the nearest equivalent of SCAA guidance on the teaching of history for the period "60 or 70 years ago" which, according to Dr Tate, set the standard from which we have plunged into our relativistic and sceptical abyss. The standard is described in the Handbook of Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers and others issued by the Board of Education in 1933. It contains chapters on "gardening" and "backward children" and, since we are being urged to revisit the period, we should take note that the purpose of housecraft was "to train a girl to set a high value on all woman's work in the home, and should develop in her an interest which will ultimately result in proficiency in the art of making a good home".

The old textbooks from which Nick Tate drew his inspiration embody the same set of principles found in the Board of Education guidance. History is "pre-eminently an instrument of moral training. History deals with the true stories of real men and women. It is a record writ large of their influence for good or evil." Teachers are, however, cautioned against turning lessons into sermons. If they can make history sufficiently interesting then "without laboured exhortations the children will feel the splendour of heroism, the worth of unselfishness and loyalty and the meanness of cruelty and cowardice; and the influence of their lessons will be at work long after the information imparted to them has been forgotten".

The scope of such history is clearly delineated - "Though there is seldom time for the systematic teaching of foreign or world history the course should, wherever possible, include such explanations of the outstanding movements of general (sic) history as is necessary for the understanding of our own story at home and overseas.

When Nick Tate stresses the importance of "a majority culture which is sure of itself, which does not feel threatened" he is merely echoing the sentiments of the Handbook: "There is much to be said in favour of the old practice of committing to memory the dates of the accession of the English monarchs as a useful framework of chronology. . . Sometimes it is urged that too much is made of kings and their reigns. But, in the first place, children require above all things personality, which appeals to them more strongly than anything else; and, in the second place, the character of the king has in earlier times nearly always and in later times very often been a determining factor in the story of our country. The strong king has his way; the weak king, after a time of confusion due to his weakness, is swept from the field; and it would be a new and stimulating conception to a child to find that of all men in his kingdom no one worked so hard as the king who really tried to rule."

I have both a quibble and a quarrel with Nick Tate. My quibble is that he is just plain wrong in criticising today's textbooks in their generality for a "preference for source material at the expense of narrative" and for their low expectations. Of course there is a tiny minority of texts which are clumsily constructed, woefully inadequate on sourcing and generally undemanding. I regret that he fails to acknowledge the range of pedagogic skills and presentational techniques now widely used, a particularly outstanding example being Societies in Change from SHP (John Murray). He should be awarding accolades for the serious treatment of visual evidence which has brought an essential new dimension to the teaching of history. He is surely familiar with Sean Lang's brilliant The Second World War (Cambridge)? I am saddened that, as the Government's chief curriculum adviser and a first-rate historian, Nick Tate appears oblivious to what the best writers, mostly working teachers, have achieved in making history not only accessible but, without abandoning the purpose of narrative, memorable in the forms and language of today.

My quarrel is that a myopic, sing-song, narrative history, chronologically constrained and timid of issues will soon be at best irrelevant and at worst misappropriated. The same year that saw the Board of Education commending the timecharting of the growth of the British Dominions, the history of the parish church and the lives of great men also saw Hitler as Chancellor, Japan leave the League of Nations and the closure of church schools in Spain. For most children their school history will be their only court of judgment for understanding and coming to terms with their world. It should be allowed to remain so.

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

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