What use is history?

24th June 2005 at 01:00
The complaints of Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner of a crisis in historical knowledge (TES, June 10) might bear a little more weight if they had some substantial evidence to draw upon. Personal anecdote is not a sufficient basis for their call to reform the school curriculum.

Despite their claims, we live in a country where people have a greater knowledge and understanding of their past than ever before and, perhaps more importantly, a desire to expand this knowledge.

There has been a renaissance in historical documentaries in recent years, and television programmes such as the BBC's Restoration attract vast viewing figures. Visits to museums are soaring and it is hard to find a bookshop without an extensive collection of works on popular and local history. General knowledge about history is unquestionably greater than when Mr Bennett and Mr Hytner were at school.

What they object to is that other people do not possess the historical knowledge that they rather arbitrarily value. Knowing that Henry IV usurped Richard II might be useful for understanding dynastic politicsin late medieval England, but it is useful for little else.

It certainly wasn't knowledge expected by Shakespeare as he goes to the trouble of explaining the politics of succession in his history plays.

Why should an audience at the National Theatre in 2005 be expected to understand more about the background of a play they are watching than an audience at the Globe in 1605?

It is impossible for any history curriculum to address more than a tiny fraction of the past, and those planning the curriculum must be highly selective about what it encompasses.

That children learn different things now than they did 40 years ago is not in itself a problem. There may be many problems with the way history is now taught in schools, but Mr Bennett and Mr Hytner fail to address any of them, and their call to make history compulsory to the age of 16 seems to have more basis in educational conservatism than the needs of the schoolchild.

Jacob Middleton

Foster Street Harlow

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