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History lessons

Professor Chris Wrigley on present debates about the past

The 'dumbing out' of history from the school curriculum, for those up to 11 and over 14, has been a major fear of recent years. There is a powerful lobby which sees education as no more than a preparation for the labour market, in the narrowest 'skills' sense. There has also been a strong strand within New Labour which views history as beginning in 1994 and any interest in what went before being suspect: illustrated by its determination to keep the lid on Labour's past at its centenary in the year 2000. Fortunately, the government confirmed earlier this year that history would remain in the national curriculum in secondary schools.

As for the discussion about 'dumbing down' - some approaches to the teaching of history have devalued its factual content. Historical imagination exercises ('imagine what you would see if you were William the Conqueror's horse at the Battle of Hastings, 1066') have obvious drawbacks, especially if not linked with well-taught factual background information. At all levels, there has been concern that a sense of change over time should be maintained - that an understanding of history is likely to involve more than a study in depth of a few years or a focus on a period just long enough to enable the development of transferable skills (however useful in themselves such skills might be). Consequently there has been much criticism of university degree courses in history, where modular choice can permit somebody to graduate with little knowledge beyond a preferred century and a favoured country or two. Yet by and large, history has been a success story of the national curriculum; notably so in primary schools. Impressive work has been done, not least in projects involving such topics as 'Our Street', 'My Grandparents and the Second World War' or 'Our House's History'.

Postmodernism has challenged traditional assumptions about history. At best it has emphasised again that we need to be wary of our use of language - that concepts change over time and that there are many different ways of seeing and assessing the same event or even object. At worst, its practitioners can suggest that most aspects of the past are 'unknowable' and are 'up for grabs' in terms of interpretation; a view which can slide into scepticism about all facts, where even Auschwitz is contestable. Nevertheless, rethinking history, especially the way that it is recounted, is generally all to the good. This was a point which was made well long ago by Pieter Geyl at the end of his Napoleon: for and against: 'History is an argument without end.'

History is very much a subject in the 'humanities', and for most of the postwar period there has seemed to have been a crisis here. As Britain has slid from Great Power status, her empire ended and her economy performed poorly relative to other industrial countries, the humanities have been depicted as less worthy than science: a view often expressed in terms of economic 'relevance', that the nation has needed its scientists to drag it up to date. This was a point vividly made by Harold Wilson's talk in the early 1960s, of 'the white-hot heat of the technological revolution', in contrast to the Conservatives' 'grouse moor image' under Macmillan and Douglas-Home. In the early 1980s the political tables were turned with the former chemist Margaret Thatcher, full of the rhetoric of rebuilding a modern Britain, in contrast to the humane and literary Michael Foot. However cost-effective history degrees were in universities, in the past two decades they have been belittled as not preparing students for the 'real world'.

Yet in the 'real world' the younger generation has been told, and told again, not to expect jobs for life; that repeated retraining is young people's almost certain lot. Those who have worked long in universities have seen various 'job-orientated' courses rise and fall. There has been much demand for flexible qualifications - and there have been few deader ends than very applied, job-orientated degrees in areas where the job market becomes saturated.

While good employment is a very high priority in the 'real world', there is also much else in it, including gaining pleasure and understanding during the rapid passage of one's life and understanding how one's own life relates to those who went before and will come after. A curiosity to understand the human condition, including within the context of passing time, is a major concern for many. This priority has been reflected in BBC Education's market research into what people would like to know more about. Information technology (IT) came first, with history second; both well ahead of the rest of the field.

Historians are usually wary of making big educational claims for history. It is a means whereby one can develop logical thought; for example, as in explaining the causes of past events or social phenomenon. But one does not have to turn to history in order to develop or to exercise such skills. The late AJP Taylor once observed, 'We should study the past not for moral or immoral lessons but to appreciate the complexity of human existence'. There are other values in the study of the past. For good or ill, the past has offered understanding of the struggles that often have been necessary to establish nations, democracy, rights for labour, rights for ethnic minorities, rights for women. It has also provided the data on which many economic and other social science theories have been built.

Human beings tend to be historically curious. In a democracy it is good that there should be lively interest in history and that debates should be grounded in the best data concerning the past and the most effective ways of interpreting such evidence as survives. If a 'dumbing down' degrades and weakens our access to the experiences of people in the past, then we are the losers.

Chris Wrigley is professor of modern history at Nottingham University, and was president of the Historical Association from 1996 to 1999

Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999



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