When history only looks to the future;Another Voice;Opinion

8th January 1999 at 00:00
EVEN the dullest of dullards must, in this final year of the 1900s, sense that she or he is living through a great moment in history. Remember how we wondered at those we met in our childhood who had actually been born when Queen Victoria was on the throne. We shall be seen in the same way. Born, they'll say, back in the 20th century. It's our claim to being a spear carrier in the theatre of history.

But, in 10 or 20 years, will anyone care about times past? Will the trend to purge us of our historical memory continue? The campaign to do so seems to gain strength because influential groups in education and politics wrongly assume that history means teaching only about "national glories" and characters such as Nelson, Wellington and Marlborough.

As editor of Winston Churchill's, A History of the English-speaking Peoples, I am only too aware of the narrow path between telling a story of British history and the academic maelstrom of revisionism. But, in our classrooms, the debate is less exciting. It is dismal.

History teaching is becoming little more than current affairs. The fashionable concept that Britain is about its future not its past stinks of intellectual shabbiness. Too often, a few decide what should be taught without considering what students might wish to learn.

It's as if history is just a subject instead of something of which we are a part. We might remember this if we take note of what is being described as a landmark event in British broadcasting.

Earlier this week, BBC Radio 4 started a whole year's broadcasting of This Sceptred Isle, the history of the British. The format could not be easier: 15 minutes of Anna Massey reading simply written history for five days a week, 52 weeks of the year. Not bad for a network that is supposed to be dumbing down.

So why is Radio 4 controller James Boyle running such a marathon? Tokenism? Getting back at his critics? Not at all. Boyle believes that downgrading history in the curriculum cannot avoid at least anecdotal evidence that the story of these islands captures the imagination of an audience with an age range between 12 and well beyond bus-passes.

Considering the level of history teaching, this isn't surprising. By GCSE and A-level, we know a bit about the Tudors perhaps, the Victorians and the 20th century. But there is no depth.

For example, in too many schools and colleges, I find that contemporary history students understand the Northern Ireland conflict only in terms of this century. Mention Henry II and what followed, and the story takes on a grander scale.

In one school, I remarked that Henry VIII had wanted a national health service. The reaction was disbelief and then fascination for a man who was thinking along lines that were not developed until the 19th century in Germany and then the 1940s in Britain.

In another classroom, I explained that no new agricultural community had appeared since the 15th century. Immediately, there was broader context of what had gone on during the lifetimes of those students.

The decision-making process of today is but a paragraph in 2,000 years of social, political and constitutional history, which is not yet finished. Explaining this gives greater meaning to what is happening in the society in which we live and in which our children will live longer.

As one Somerset sixth-former put it to me, "It's best to see the complete game instead of just the highlights". She had worked it out for herself. If we downgrade history teaching, then we downgrade our society. But she has grown up in a society increasingly encouraged to know little and understand less.

But, beneath the marketing assumptions about the way we wish to live and our obsession with "now" culture, there are two factors we must not ignore.

First, there is much evidence to support James Boyle's notion that society needs an identification which is stronger than a modern label. Second, that same society has the highest expectations of any in our history. Consequently, we think only of the present as the basis for our future.

Perhaps that's what is intended. Is our system really doing its best to downgrade inquisitiveness and our ability to think for ourselves? If we contemplate what is planned for us next, then we must make historical comparisons. Surely, the history teacher cannot be such a dangerous beast.

Yet, the perfect spin-doctor first washes the brain and then replaces the cleansed organ with a new vision. But without knowing where we've been and who we are, we're left with having to trust the political spinner with our future.

The history of the past few weeks alone tells us that is, indeed, a very bad idea.

This Sceptred Isle, written by Christopher Lee, is published in hardback, audio tapes and CD by the BBC. The Penguin paperback edition has just been published

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