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Tuesday, 20 September 2011

School History: really, what is the point?

All right, I will cheerily admit that I am not entirely averse to saying things just to provoke people, and even - sometimes, just sometimes - just to annoy them.  So you might want to take what I am going to say in that sort of spirit.  In fact, however, although I am entirely willing to be disagreed with and indeed to change my mind, I am actually quite serious in what I am about to say.

And that is that I find the debates over what sort of history should be taught in school, both the political proposals of the odious Gove and the responses to them to be so intellectually worthless that it leads you (well, me) to wonder whether we might not be better off not teaching history in school at all - or at least not making it compulsory.  I'm serious.

Gove wants schools to focus on a triumphalist narrative of British history.  Is this what Schools history is for?  To foster some kind of petty nationalism? (There was a good response to Gove by Richard Evans not long ago.  I will post the link when I find it.)  I think most of us will agree that it is not, not least because it really runs a risk of alienating significant parts of the modern population of Great Britain unless the way that 'British history' is conceived of undergoes a serious, radical overhaul.  I don't mean by including the Empire, or making sure that all of the British Isles are covered.  I mean by rethinking what Britain (in the present) is and what history has to contribute to it.

Answers to that sort of question have tended to be couched in terms of 'narrative' and 'relevance' - neither of which terms seems to me to encourage any sophisticated understanding of history.  It is perhaps not surprising then that most of the public contributions to the debate (apart from Evans') have come from people that I do not regard as historians, but as writers, journalists, broadcasters and gentlemen-chroniclers or antiquaries.

Many of those of us who teach history at university will agree that schools history instills in students very little sense of what history is really about, and very few of the skills for university history.  I am not entirely sure what a simple factual awareness of British (or any) history is really supposed to do to enhance anyone's life or culture.  I doubt it would do any more than memorising the county towns of England in geography lessons would, or taking up English literature classes with learning which British writers wrote which books (perhaps accompanied by 'memorable quotes').  In other words a rather shallow form of pub quiz general knowledge.  After all, most people think that's all history is in any case...

I have argued before on this blog that history is about interpretive skills and understanding other cultures.  The whole debate needs a major imput from proper historians and moving completely outside the limitations within which it is currently constrained. If schools history is to continue as a political football and the debate on it remains focused simply on what sort of British story it should tell or what bits are most 'relevant' then - seriously - I would be all for making it an optional subject and replacing it with compulsory philosophy.