Tea-towel heritage 'distorts' the past

19th September 1997 at 01:00
A phoney heritage of Beefeaters and thatched-cottage teatowels is threatening to distort our sense of Britain's past, according to the Government's chief curriculum adviser.

We now understand so little real history that society is struggling to make sense of the present, according to Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Historical Association, which met in Manchester this week, he called for a new mission statement, a clear rationale for history.

"We don't use the past intelligently because we don't know enough to be able to use it," he told the 500 delegates.

The explosion of the heritage industry, he said, is partly a reaction to a world of rapid change where people have lost their bearings.

"It is precisely in order to avoid this kind of over-dependence on a sanitised heritage that we need to study history: so that by understanding better where we have come from, we can place ourselves more confidently in the present and thus be more inclined to try to shape the future," said Dr Tate, himself a historian. The less we know about the past the more likely we are to wish to bury ourselves in it."

Returning to one of his favourite themes, Dr Tate insisted that children should develop a clear sense of national identity - "one of the few lodestars left at a time of rapid change and flux".

A sense of collective identity, he said, should not be confused with "pathological nationalism". Rather it is central to the workings of democracy, producing a sense of civic involvement.

"It means giving priority in the curriculum to English and British history (including the history of all the different social, cultural and ethnic groups which this involves); to the history of the relationship between England, Britain, Europe and the world; to the geography of the British Isles; to the literary heritage in English; to the English language as it is spoken and written in these islands; to the British political system; and to the study of the Christian religion and the Judaeo-Christian roots of our shared values. "

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