There is no substitute for a trained memory

13th June 2014 at 01:00
Forget free schools and academies, says the celebrated historian - only one core task will bring real educational revolution

One of the prime purposes of education should be to discipline memory and teach you how to use it. To do this, students need to learn facts. Without the ability to retain distinct pieces of information and then perceive their connections, you simply cannot argue and you cannot debate.

So when I consider the changes that Michael Gove, the education secretary, is making to the history curriculum in England and the importance he places on chronology and dates, I think he is right in principle. However, he often errs in practice.

In particular, he is fighting the ingrained contempt we have shown in British education for memory and the need to know. This contempt is the source of most of the disasters in the modern system.

It is not simply about remembering the dates of the kings and queens of England and being able to recite them back. Memory is much more associative - it is about perceiving connections between apparently disparate facts. Watch any QC in operation in court: their success depends on the ability to retain pieces of information and make connections between them.

It is the same if I am writing a piece of historical analysis: I have to remember before I can write.

Playing down the importance of memory and memory training goes against the entire experience of education in the past 2,000 years. It has been there since the ancient world, it received an enormous boost at the Renaissance and we perfected it in the Victorian period.

Memory is central to what makes us human, which is why Alzheimer's disease is so devastating. If we ignore memory, we are catastrophically mis-serving our students.

So I agree with the broad thrust of Gove's changes to the history curriculum, but he began by trying to implement it in the wrong way.

The idea that history teaching should simply be chronological, starting with prehistory at 5 and finishing off with Margaret Thatcher at the age of 16, was silly. It would have meant that every early period of history was taught when children were too young to think seriously.

How on earth would you teach eight-year-olds about the Magna Carta and the divine right of kings? Different audiences require you to tackle the past in different ways. At primary school, children should be given a fairly broad-brush outline that excites them with stories and characters while at the same time getting them to consider how things change over long periods of time.

The approach probably needs to be much more thematic. Pupils can build models of primitive villages at the age of 6 and learn about the three-field system of crop rotation at 9. They can get an understanding in that kind of fashion. However, they can begin to tackle concepts of politics and organisation and complex social relationships only as they get older.

Teaching history to children at every stage through evidence and the scrutinising of sources is time-consuming, tedious and demands a high degree of sophistication, which younger pupils can't possibly have. Instead of gaining a true understanding they parrot terms like "bias" and learn nothing of value.

Intelligent design

But the focus on memory does not apply simply to history or maths or grammar - or, indeed, solely to academic study. The associative qualities of real intelligence and real memory, the connections that can be perceived with them, seem to me to be just as important in practical training as they are in academic. Everything from traditional arts and crafts to the performance of a highly skilled engineer relies on memory. There is knowledge and that knowledge has been internalised and systematised.

I believe passionately that children have wildly different talents and capacities and we need different kinds of schooling to match those. So we should not be returning to the foolish and divisive idea that academic education is good and of a superior class and that practical education is bad and somehow working class.

Secondary moderns were a disaster. But just as bad is Gove's notion that everybody should follow a mainstream academic curriculum. Instead, we need a proper, and properly resourced, system of technical education, as Lord Baker of Dorking proposes. Everybody blathers on about trying to revive British industry but, until you have a population in which a significant part of the workforce is properly trained technically, that is pie in the sky.

We are also falling down in terms of our political responsibility. Education is not simply utilitarian; a means of preparing students for employment. It is also a preparation for citizenship in a democratic society.

If you do not educate people to respect truth and argument through the discipline of memory and the teaching of facts, you leave the way open to the idiocies of astrology, UFOs and conspiracy theory. You have only to look at the columns of popular newspapers to see that in large parts of the population there has been a collapse of any belief in rational argument.

There is, of course, an opposing view, which emphasises "creativity" on the one hand and, on the other, the notion that learning facts has become unimportant because technological change means it is easy to find everything on the internet.

Let us call things by their proper names: creativity means "making things up". It has become the great cop-out for people who don't know or want to know. It is also a cop-out economically: we are very good at generating new ideas but extraordinarily bad at producing people who can do and build things. Yet the reality of the so-called creative industries is that they will only ever employ a tiny fraction of our population.

I think we can all agree that things are not working terribly well and we need to change. But change what? Messing around with academies and free schools is at best marginal, and at worst a costly diversion. What we need to change is the educational ethos: a system that doesn't make memory and its training one of its central concerns is going to fail. Give memory its proper weight and we may begin to succeed.

David Starkey was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. He is appearing at the Festival of Education, which takes place on 20-21 June at Wellington College in Berkshire. For more information, visit


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