Teen spirit

5th August 2005 at 01:00
Matthew Holehouse would like to see a history syllabus that wakes up teenagers - not their grandparents

The branch of Waterstone's I used to work at claimed, a little proudly, to be the smallest in the country. The history department had four bookcases.

One of these was devoted to world history, and two to British. The fourth was given over to books on the Nazis and the war. We sold more on Himmler than all eight Henrys. In between the Richard and Judy stand, the Atkins diet and The Da Vinci Code nestled a pile of Mein Kampfs and an account of the Battle of Britain.

There were innocent reasons why we were waist-deep in fascists. Harrogate has an elderly population, so for many of our customers it's current affairs. History is hard, and the robotic, Swastika-chic badness of the Nazis is fairly thought-lite. And we won. But fascination with the Fuehrer has infiltrated the classroom. By next summer I'll have studied 1930s Germany for five consecutive years. It's all very interesting that Adolf liked Charlie Chaplin films, and that his mother was his one-eighth Jewish father's niece, but with no context of how the Third Reich fits into the wider history of Europe it's all a bit pointless. From a citizenship point of view the Nazis are indispensable, but how much harder do we need to stare at this car crash?

For AS-level, alongside the Hitler-Stalin double act, I took a complementary course on the development of democracies, covering the French revolution and electoral reform in Britain. Studying an idea rather than a place or period is a bold idea, and I think most historians would argue that 1789 is a more significant date in the making of the modern world than 1933. Under the OCR politics course there's a weighty compulsory section on the history of the EU. Fashionable? No. But more important than learning about the reorganisation of the SS. Just don't tell the Daily Mail.

Running through the syllabus is a heavy emphasis on skills. AQA awards a third of the marks at AS-level for criticising sources, and around a quarter for writing an essay properly. The exam boards are sticklers for accuracy too, and leave little room for value judgments or comfortable generalisations. A teacher who marks international baccaulaureate papers says that Texan candidates habitually refer to the Cold War in terms of the "evil empire" and the "struggle for freedom".

I think we're at risk of losing our objectivity, too. At the election the Conservatives railed against the system that allows pupils to miss out huge swathes of British and European history. I think they had a point; I've no idea who the Plantagenets were, or why we had a counter-reformation, or what King George was so mad about. However, the insistence that schools should instil a sense of Britishness in pupils by teaching the glories of Trafalgar, Agincourt and Churchill may play well with the grandparents, but it's wrong. Choosing a topic for its symbolism rather than its importance is mythmaking, not history. So, fewer jackboots and Junkers, more ruffs and revolutions, please. And leave Nelson on his column.

Matthew Holehouse has just finished Year 12 at Harrogate grammar school.

His column is running throughout the summer

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