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Review of "The Right Kind of History – Teaching the Past in Twentieth Century England" by


21 February 2012

I should start with a declaration of interest. Sir David Cannadine and I were exact contemporaries at Clare College, and part of the same circle of friends. After Clare our paths have diverged and the last time I saw him was in 1976, although I regularly hear his voice on Radio 4 and it sounds recognisably familiar. (I had the same experience of voice recognition when I heard another contemporary, Matthew Parris on the radio despite, at that time, of not having seen him since Clare.)

The book is the result of a 2 ½ year research project. The Linbury Trust funded the cost of two research fellows and also made possible the establishment of an extensive oral history archive. Dr Jenny Keating researched and wrote up the material for the period 1900 – 1965 while Dr Nicola Sheldon did the same for the years 1965 – 2010. David Cannadine directed the project, setting the research strategy and formulating the questions and then wrote the book.

An overview of the book

The book commences with "Introduction: Themes and Problems" and then has five numbered chapters:

  1. History Goes to School, 1900 – 1918
  2. History in Peace and War, 1918 – 1944
  3. History and the Welfare State, 1944 – 1964
  4. History for a Nation 'In Decline', 1964 – 1979
  5. History in the National Curriculum, 1979 – 2010

The findings and the author's recommendations are summarised in the final chapter: "Conclusion: Perspectives and Suggestions".

There are a number of appendices:

  1. Names of Interviewees
  2. Names of Lenders and Donors
  3. School Certificate Examinations in History in 1923
  4. History Syllabuses from the 1970s Onwards
  5. History Examination Candidates and Results, 1919 – 2010
  6. Principal Education Ministers, 1900 – 2010
  7. The Education in History Website

The book concludes with over 40 pages giving a list of abbreviations, a note on sources, the notes and the index. Despite its comprehensive nature it is only 306 A5 size pages all in. Despite being neither a teacher nor a historian I found it very easy to read and absorbing, especially given my involvement with the Curriculum for Cohesion project.

In this review I can only give an impression of parts of the book.

Introduction: Themes and Problems

The author starts by illustrating how controversial and politically significant the teaching of history can be.

  • In 2010, Vladimir Putin instructed academics to draw up a new school textbook presenting a revised version of Russian history playing down the excesses of communism.
  • In 1934 Joseph Stalin convened a meeting of historians to discuss the correct teaching of Russian history in Russian schools, complaining that the existing textbooks "aren't good for anything. It's all epochs and no facts, no events, no people, no concrete information."
  • In the 1990s, Australian Prime Minister John Howard "deplored the 'black-armband' version of his country's history, stressing the genocide of the aborigines and the expropriation of their lands" leading to Australia's so-called "history wars", rather like the perpetual culture wars which rage in the USA.
  • In early 2010 controversy broke out in Texas with conservative activists seeking to rewrite the history syllabus to propagate their view that the founding fathers “intended America to be a Christian nation, rather than one upholding the principle of the separation of church and state"
  • Since the 1980s the history of India has been fought over between nationalist exclusionary Hindu fundamentalists and those who believe that India's history is one of tolerance and inclusivity.

The author also mentions that France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada and Japan have also had deep disagreements about their own history, without going into detail.

The book starts in 1900, specifically because the Board of Education with responsibility for overseeing schooling in England was established in that year, with a politician designated as president. In 1944 this body became the Ministry of Education which has had many changes of name since then. The author points out that in 110 years there have been 55 changes at the very top, so the average longevity of the president/minister has been only two years. Most occupants of the post have been relatively obscure, with only one of the 55 (so far) going on to become Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Despite the archives that all government ministries keep, the author points out the limited information available.

"What then… Was it like to be taught history in a primary or secondary school during the twentieth century? In truth, no one knows very much about this. There are records and evaluations of the history teaching in the classroom by generations of HMI's; [Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Education] but although of great value, they are official accounts of teaching as pedagogy, and do not get close to the experience of being a pupil in the classroom, taking history in (or not taking it in) at the receiving end. Moreover, few of these millions of one-time English schoolchildren have left behind their recollections of the sort of history they were taught, of the ways in which they were taught it, and how well and/or badly they were instructed, what the history they learned meant to them at the time, and what if anything it has meant to them since. For the first third of the twentieth century, this is an evidential gap that is virtually impossible to fill, although there is some relevant material from an earlier oral history project conducted by Paul Thompson and Thea Vigne at the University of Essex. But for the later period, and increasingly so towards our own times, we have created a new evidential source, by surveying 335 and interviewing 68 people, of varied ages, backgrounds and locations, who have given their recollections of being taught history in the classroom."

The author mentions two key themes for the research.

  1. "What is the relation between the history taught and learned in school, the history pursued by boys and girls outside the classroom, and the history they engage with in later life?"
  2. “How far has the teaching of history helped promote a shared sense of national identity?”

History for a Nation 'In Decline', 1964 – 1979

One of the recurrent controversies in the teaching of history is the balance between learning information and learning skills. This is brought out in a particularly accessible way in the discussion in this chapter about "new history" and "old history."

“The 'old history' had been the traditional national narrative, taught by means of 'chalk-and-talk'; the 'new history' was more varied and accessible. Out had gone the incessant note-taking, along with great chunks of the chronological syllabus, to be replaced by 'patch' and thematic studies, and the analysis of historical sources.

But the 'new history' was not just about a change in historical content and in teaching, so as to help the subject compete in the new comprehensive schools: it was also concerned with historical method, in the belief that it was important to introduce children to the many ways in which history was constructed – and contested. From this perspective, the most important question was not 'what history should children be taught?', but rather, 'how should children be learning to think about history?' As such, the 'new history' drew on the long, but hitherto marginal tradition of progressive pedagogy, which had stressed the importance of promoting thinking skills and the use of sources in the teaching of history."

History in the National Curriculum, 1979 – 2010

This chapter mentions that:

"The most recent accounts of history teaching in primary and secondary schools come from two surveys by Ofsted, for 2003 – 07 [ History in the balance], and for 2007 – 10 [History for all], and their verdicts, although based on a limited sample, are encouraging and yet equivocal in a way that will come as no surprise to anyone who has persevered thus far with this book."

The author goes on to explain that:

“At primary level there has recently been a retreat from history and a return to ‘topics’ which cut across the subject-specific boundaries, while younger primary school teachers receive little specialist training in history either before they qualify or as serving teachers. And in secondary schools, at Key Stage 3, citizenship, vocational courses and other new specialist subjects and topics imposed by the government have cut into the time previously allocated for history.

As a result, the suggestion has crept back that history is again 'in danger', from being fragmented and disaggregated. For as the time allocated to the subject in secondary schools has been reduced, this has often resulted in an increasingly 'episodic' treatment of the subject, with teachers hopping rapidly from one topic to another, without providing chronological coverage and coherence. At ages 11 – 12, pupils might begin with the Roman invasion or the Norman Conquest, move on to Henry II and Thomas Becket or the Crusades, followed by King John and Magna Carta and then skip back to the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt. At 12 – 13, they can rush through the 'voyages of discovery', Tudor monarchs and English Civil War, and the British Empire and Slave Trade… The result is that too much history is taught 'in terms of disparate fragments… Everybody can see… that knowing a bit about the Tudors and a bit about Jack the Ripper and a bit about the Victorians is not really a history education' at both primary and secondary levels, 'too great a focus on a relatively small number of issues means that pupils are not good at establishing a chronology, do not make connections between areas they have studied, and so do not gain an overview, and are not able to answer the 'big questions'".

The author's description reminds me of the limited knowledge of London geography that I gained over many years of making short trips from Manchester into central London. I got to know small zones that I would visit around particular Underground stations, but without any appreciation of the relationship of those zones to each other, or overall sense of the layout of London as a city.

The chapter concludes with the time-honoured question "What, then, needs to be done?"

Conclusion: Perspectives and Suggestions

This is perhaps the most insightful chapter in the book although of course it only makes sense once contextualised by the preceding historical coverage.

"Education, it has been observed, functions in two ways: first, as a matter of formal pedagogy, namely what is taught, where it is taught, why it is taught, how it is taught, by whom it is taught, and to whom it is taught; and second, as part of a shared accumulation and passing on of a society's collectively accumulated knowledge, 'as the entire process by which a culture transmits itself across the generations'. But education also needs to be understood as the interconnection between pedagogy and culture, and this book is a pioneering effort to do so, looking at history in twentieth-century England as a taught subject: at the arrangements and means by which schoolchildren come to learn about the past, but also at the sense of that past, if any, which they acquire, retain and remember in their later lives. All taught subjects, from mathematics to music, economics to English literature, have such double identities and overlapping histories, within the classroom, and in the wider world beyond. Yet they have rarely been written about in this way, in part because to do so requires the bringing together of two sub-disciplines which only infrequently conjoin: the history of education, and the history of culture."

The author then goes on to explain what makes history particularly different from other taught subjects.

"But there are also ways in which history is not like most taught subjects. Some of them are virtually the same the world over: economic and physics, Spanish and engineering, Latin and astronomy. Even allowing for linguistic variation and cultural differences, teaching them at a school in Beijing or Moscow or Cairo or Caracas would cover recognisably similar content. Some subjects are more territorially specific, although often in a way that still transcends national boundaries, such as music, literature, religion, architecture and art. They are often the signifiers of larger cultural associations, sometimes referred to as 'civilisations'. But there are a few subjects which are very different in content from one nation to another, of which history is the most potent. To be sure, the history of the world is (or ought to be) the same whatever part of it you happen to be in; and the outlines of the history of the United States or the United Kingdom ought to be the same whether you inhabit either of those countries or live elsewhere. But since the nineteenth century, history has also been important in the creation of particular national identities, which means that what is being taught in the classroom in Hong Kong or Melbourne or Accra or Berlin or Washington DC may be completely different: the history of a particular nation, of great interest to its citizenry and their sense of shared identity, but of less interest others, who have their own national identity and their own national consciousness instead.

Thus regarded, history is simultaneously a global academic discipline, but also the avatar of many distinct national identities, and these two endeavours, and the people who seek to promote them, rarely align or agree. Many academics see the purpose of history as subverting rather than supporting national myths; many public figures see history as an essentially engaged education in citizenship – and many teachers occupy a position somewhere in between. Perhaps this helps explain why the teaching of history in schools has, during the last two or three decades, become so contested and controversial around the world; for as the power and autonomy of the nation state seems increasingly undermined, by everything from the ICT revolution to global warming, and as nations become ever more conscious of their ethnic variety and diversity, it becomes harder to agree on a single, shared national narrative. And since a single, shared national narrative is thought to be one of the major constituents of national identity, the decline in the attraction and conviction of such accounts is both a cause and consequence of the weakening of the hold of the nation state itself. Although specific to separate countries, these are also global phenomena, by which few nations have recently been unaffected; and any discussion of the place of history in the classrooms of English schools must recognise that this is our local version of something going on the world over."

The book concludes with some specific recommendations.

It proposes that history should be made compulsory in all state schools until the age of 16. This would avoid the problem that presently arises when the national curriculum ends at age 14 while pupils study two more years of history if they are taking the history GCSE, (General Certificate of Secondary Education) with often there being little connection or alternatively actual duplication between the two syllabuses.

The second broad recommendation is the need to raise the standard of public discussion about education in general and about history in schools in particular.

"Moreover, there is something peculiarly sad and unhelpful about an older generation denouncing the alleged educational shortcomings of a younger generation, when it is the very older generation which is itself responsible for these alleged shortcomings. To be sure, there are serious matters of concern, and in the case of history teaching we have sought to identify them and to suggest ways of dealing with them. But across much of the media, there is too much talk of crisis, too much irresponsible scaremongering, too much adversarial polarisation of views, insufficient awareness of what is happening elsewhere in the world, and a reprehensible lack of the sort of historical perspective we have sought to provide in this book for the teaching of history, and which urgently needs to be provided for other subjects, too."

Concluding comments

I found the book fascinating, evidenced most simply by my review growing to the length that it has. The book was very easy to read and focuses in a very fundamental way on the question of what history teaching is about. I would recommend the book to everyone who cares about how the education of our children affects their future and our country’s future.

We are our history

Ultimately our view of history determines who we are both as individuals and as collective communities. I just want to give two examples to illustrate this point.

Being Jewish

The collective historical memory represented by the questions and answers in the Seder (the ceremony at the start of Passover) beginning with the question "Why is this night different from all other nights?" is fundamental to a Jew's self-understanding of being Jewish.

Christians' views of Muslims

If as a Christian your sole historical knowledge of interactions with Muslims relates to the Muslim conquests in Europe and the Crusades, it is likely that you will see Muslims through a prism of conflict. Conversely if you are aware of the extent to which the modern world includes knowledge developed by Muslims (for an example see my piece Tortured by algebra? Who can you blame?) then you are likely to have a different view of Muslims today.

What History should we teach in the UK?

My involvement with the Curriculum for Cohesion project also took me to a one-day conference at Anglia Ruskin University at the end of January about the teaching of history, where I found myself surrounded by history teachers and education academics! In one of the workshops the participants had the opportunity of saying what they thought should be at the heart of the history curriculum, the one key thing that they would want to have taught.

Being an individual who naturally inclines towards "the big picture" I responded that at the heart of English history teaching should be an appreciation of how our physical geography makes us different from mainland Europe. Although the English Channel is only 22 miles wide, it has meant that we have not been invaded since 1066 A.D. This is fundamentally different from the fluidity of many national borders in continental Europe. Accordingly continental countries have long experience of wars being fought out over their territory. Instead England has been an isolated island nation, albeit welcoming immigrants from time to time such as Huguenots and Russian Jews, and a nation whose connections with the rest of the world were, unavoidably, maritime.

As a supplemental thought, writing the above paragraph suggests to me that the fundamentally "contractual" nature of the English state derives from the security that comes from being an island. Conversely countries such as Germany or Poland that lay in open areas easily crossed by marching armies have perhaps had to identify their concept of nationhood as being primarily “tribal”, since there was no physically secure foundation for the nation. (The difference between “contractual states” and “tribal states” is discussed in my website page "The Conservative Party, racial equality and national identity")



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