Why removing history is bunk

25th June 2004 at 01:00
The lessons of the past remain invaluable for both teachers and their pupils, says Douglas Osler

It would be a surprise if, after expressing views on the curriculum, I ignored the reported decision by some schools to abandon the teaching of history. I was, after all, a teacher of the subject, although never a fanatical one. A friend of my parents once asked "why is a live wire like you studying a dull subject like history?" and that view is one of history's problems.

As a teacher, it was never the content of history that attracted me to the job; it was the other privileges of classroom and school life.

Nevertheless, I could always make a case as to why it mattered. That led to looking for ways of making the subject more interesting and its skills more accessible.

So the first time I ever appeared in this paper (on the front page, of course!) was in May 1974 with a report of a survey of S1 and S2 pupils in my department about our new approaches to teaching history.

I am a believer but not a missionary. A school removing history is a nonsense. Ministers were warned that flexibility in the curriculum would lead to silly decisions as well as valuable innovations. We will end up with schools like those in American districts which don't offer some subjects just because they never have.

Schools should consider carefully the long-term implications of removing subjects. They can't be easily restored when the staff have gone. I wrote before about the university professor, chair of a school board, who believed PE should not be compulsory because children ran around in the playground.

It is fine to encourage fish farming in Poolewe, computing in Greenock and greenkeeping in St Andrews, but there are some things which should be taught everywhere and history is one of these. Consultation is wise but subject provision by plebiscite is no way to plan a curriculum.

There is a view that history is an adult subject and in some ways that is true of its more complex aspects, but don't underestimate the perceptiveness of teenagers. I was once interviewed for a job by a councillor who thought history should be left to adult fiction because that was what he enjoyed.

Historical drama is popular on television but part of what school history teaches is to beware of stories based on reality which are actually fiction. That is like leaving history to Shakespeare or Kennedy's assassination to the film JFK.

I used to give S6 a list of imagined titles of books, authors and dates of publication and ask them to say what they would expect of, for example, a book on Nazi Germany published in Berlin in 1939. History teaches you to question, to seek evidence before rushing to judgement, to balance probabilities, to understand others' views, to choose role models, to set events in context. No wonder so many senior HMI are historians.

With the nature of citizenship under discussion and a premium on thinking skills, it seems odd to remove a subject which anchors these skills. The voting age may become 16, European and general elections capture the headlines, yet misguided schools might remove pupils' best chance to understand Europe and challenge politicians. It is not clever to make up your mind about the European constitution with no understanding of European history or with knowledge that comes only from Herman Wouk. With moral and political decisions more intertwined than ever before, pupils need the skills of studying history.

How can young people come to a view about events in Iraq or Israel, republicanism in Australia, peace in Northern Ireland or democracy in Russia if they have never studied history and so lack not necessarily all the facts, because each topic will not be covered in school, but without the knowledge of where to go for the facts, how to use them, how to relate them to the pattern of the history they have studied?

The ability to understand and to forgive comes from relating events to what has gone before. The chances of building a settled society are reduced without understanding the influences of the past on our neighbours and our enemies.

If we deprive pupils of history, we remove their sense of belonging and turn them loose on a society where aggression will replace understanding and contempt will triumph over co-operation. The best way of valuing what we have in our society is to know how difficult it was to achieve freedom of speech, universal suffrage, political control of the army, or the independence of the judiciary. That goes too for religious freedom.

Removing history from the curriculum for all is no debating point. It is serious stuff. I believe history should be extended to a compulsory Standard grade course for all pupils. History is that important. And it should contain a substantial amount of Scottish history - despite the view I once heard from one head who opposed the teaching of Scottish history because there were so many English families in his catchment area and they wouldn't like it.

Tough. Can you imagine a school in Provence, Tuscany or Texas being so sensitive to the expats? For that matter, can you imagine many other countries taking history out of their curriculum?

A recommendation of the European Committee of Ministers in 2001 backed the teaching of history as a means of developing stronger mutual understanding and confidence between pupils and eliminating prejudice. They agreed to continue activities relating to history teaching in order to strengthen trust and tolerance within and between states and to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Decisions of the kind reported will leave Scotland's young people ill-prepared for the challenges that face them. They need to be protected from this kind of nonsense.

Douglas Osler is former HM senior chief inspector of education.

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