Why history should always be debatable

21st February 2003 at 00:00
I am the proud possessor of a history degree. But I attended the University of Sussex in the 1960s, when it was the very acme of self-conscious modernity, determinedly breaking disciplinary boundaries.

I did a bit of literature, a bit of philosophy, a bit of sociology, and bits of many other things. I wrote a weekly essay on a subject I didn't quite understand - which, as it turned out, was a perfect preparation for Sunday newspaper journalism. But I didn't do all that much history.

Am I the worse for it? Prince Charles would think so: he recently called for history to be taught as "a coherent, chronological narrative". Since my studies lacked any celebration of the glories of the British Empire, President George W Bush would no doubt think so too: he called a meeting at the White House this week to demand a more patriotic approach in American history teaching.

Whenever people propose that education be "taken out of politics", I refer them to the subject of history. History is impossible to divorce from politics. Not only is it impossible to teach neutrally (unless reduced to a succession of dates and events), even the choice of subject matter is highly political.

Prince Charles wants "essential knowledge and understanding" about national history so that people have "that all-important anchor when buffeted by the storms of life". I doubt that he has in mind the poor stockingers and the Luddite croppers whom EP Thompson tried to rescue from what he called "the enormous condescension of posterity".

Rather, the Prince imagines that remembrance of dead monarchs and of triumphs against the Spanish Armada, Napoleon and Hitler will comfort us as we contemplate terrorists launching surface to air missiles on the M25.

The present crisis illustrates the dilemmas of history teaching. History penetrates every aspect of it. Why do the Americans have such a firm belief in their own righteousness? Why do they feel so keenly the "ingratitude" in Europe's refusal to support them? How did Iraq come into being? What are the roots of Muslim grievances against the West? The questions are endless.

Yet bound by the national curriculum, few schools will have time to discuss them.

The traditionalists will answer that schools have no business turning history lessons into Newsnight studio discussions. History, they will say, is an academic discipline, with a body of knowledge and a set of approaches that should be taught without regard to "relevance". This suits them well, because it allows ruling elites to interpret history for their own benefit.

Traditionalists want history taught as something fixed and given, an anchor (to use Prince Charles's word). Yet the point of teaching history is to explain how we got here. And since where we are changes all the time, so will our view of what history should be taught and how it should be taught. How many people, for example, now see the Crusades in a new light since they became aware of Osama Bin Laden's jihad?

History is a contestable subject - and that, above all, is what children should understand. This year, they will see history in the making, not in the sense that the next few weeks will have a place in the history books (though they surely will) but in the sense that we shall re-interpret history as events unfold.

The point is not to learn of their country's past glories - or of the nobility of working-class struggle - but to learn that history changes day by day and that (beyond the barest facts) it is a story that can always be told differently, and always challenged.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman TES Teacher, 30

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