Violent threat to the past

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Historians fear that a too narrow study of this century's dictators is restricting the knowledge of pupils. Sarah Cassidy reports

THE EDUCATIONAL market place has reduced history to the study of 20th-century violence and oppression, according to Britain's leading historians.

Children are repeatedly taught about the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin but know little of life before 1900, teachers and academics asserted at this week's Historical Association conference.

They are concerned that commercial pressures will force exam boards to drop earlier periods of study, reducing the opportunities for future historians to gain a comprehensive knowledge of their


They fear a repeat of this summer's axing of Anglo-Saxon history, which was dropped by all exam boards because it was considered too unpopular, and only reinstated after the personal intervention of the Education Secretary David Blunkett.

Although fewer students answer exam questions on earlier periods, this does not mean they are not interested in pre-20th century, just that many have not been taught it, historians argued at the York University conference.

Sean Lang, head of sixth form at Hills Road sixth-form college in Cambridge, is horrified by the almost exclusive focus on 20th-

century dictators.

"Why do we feel that the best way of selling our subject is by promoting violence and tyranny. The diet we are in danger of cooking up seems to be designed exclusively to appeal to teenagers. We must challenge the assumption that violence is attractive and offer our students a less narrow curriculum," he said.

Rosamund McKitterick, professor of medieval history at Cambridge University, added: "Students' knowledge is becoming worryingly narrow. It is not uncommon for students to come to university with little sense of history before the 18th century having studied only tyranny and oppression.

"Students do not always know what is best for them - encouraging them to widen their horizons can only be beneficial."

Exam boards came under fire for dropping earlier periods from the syllabuses currently being prepared for the new modular

A-levels which start in September 2000.

But the boards blamed the Government's exam quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, for enforcing strict limits on syllabus numbers which will allow only 135 from the year 2000.

Opinion, 16

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