Much has already been said about the proposed new history curriculum. This piece by David Cannadine in the TLS is a good place to start, as is the Historical Association’s forum on the topic and, of course, Richard Evans in the FT. There is not much point in my adding to all this, but I did want to share something that looking at this contents-page of a curriculum made me recall.
As many of the critics of the proposed curriculum have pointed out, it all begins promisingly enough: it should allow children to “understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance”, and “how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed”. But what follows seems specifically-designed to undermine such aims, with a chronological list of names, abstract ideas and events that kids from as young as six are supposed to get through in just an hour a week.
There is much concern that this dry list, with often often age-inappropriate topics, will be a complete turn-off and that numbers taking history at GCSE will plummet. It will now be much harder for primary teachers to make history come alive by finding their local history, talking to people who remember past events, taking advantage of local museums, or discussing topics that fit the age of the children being taught – evacuation, for example, might be a powerful topic to discuss with children young enough not to be able to imagine leaving their parents. Instead, seven-year-olds will be discussing “concepts such as civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, and war and peace”.
Thinking about what I don’t like about this curriculum got me thinking about my own experience of history at school. It didn’t make much of an impression on me at primary school: I got most of my history at home and on family trips to museums, monuments and galleries. It is this kind of thing, which many children will not have had, that Gove claims his education reforms make up for but, of course, it is never presented as a chronological ‘island story’. It involved going to places, asking questions, haphazard connections.
The little history I remember from primary school seemed equally haphazard, but that is no bad thing. You gain a sense of historical perspective not by slogging, over years, through a long chronology, but by thinking one day about Roman gladiators and then thinking about how different the world was when Henry VIII was on the throne, or when your house was built, or when aeroplanes were invented. The things that stick most in my mind had a connection to where I lived: the history of the city, the use of the buildings surrounding me. On one class visit to Edinburgh Castle, we dressed up as the French prisoners kept there during the Napoleonic Wars. We offered, as they had, our craftwork for sale and, of all things, sang the Marseillaise as we walked up to the gates.
At secondary school I started to really enjoy history, sometimes because of excellent teaching, sometimes in spite of it. Things were worst when we had to slog through a topic that covered a long period of history and when we were mostly obviously cramming in facts, people, dates and themes to prepare for exams. Things were best when we had discrete topics that we could cover in sufficient detail to get a feel for the period, the people involved and different perspectives.
Another post today from a fellow history of science curator – Charlie Connelly of the Science Museum – suggested one approach to counter that of Gove’s curriculum. This was to tell good stories, something with which many a watcher of TV documentaries and reader of popular histories would agree, not to mention many public historians and those who come to history outside the usual school and academic route. Charlie explains that it was good stories, even if ‘bad’ histories, like Sobel’s Longitude that got her to change her mind on history, having given up at 14 “finding it an unbelievably dry and tedious subject”.
I am a bit more doubtful, as readers of this blog will know, about using misleading stories as a hook. I also don’t recall “stories” being something that got me interested in history at school (although I do remember frequently getting a book called “100 Great Lives” out of the library over and again, undoubtedly a text Gove would have approved of). In fact, the thing that really excited me about history was that the more we know, the more we see that stories can be questioned. That was a powerful feeling.
Three lessons in my first year of secondary school stick out. For each of them the teacher prepared packs of images and texts and allowed us to go through them and draw our own conclusions, before class discussions and his conclusions. The first lesson was based on a fictional crime. We were given a range of evidence from the scene and about suspects and had to see if we could solve the crime. The next lesson did something similar, but with real images, newspaper reports, letters and statements, about the assassination of JFK. The final one looked at the assassination at Sarajevo.
For the real cases it became abundantly clear that the evidence we had was contradictory, that it could be very different in form and that different narratives could be created. This was exciting. We weren’t being taught facts, we were investigating, doing our own thinking and drawing our own conclusions or creating our own narratives based on the evidence we had. Aside from the fact that the evidence was given to us on coloured paper rather than our finding it ourselves in the archive, this really is a little bit like what real historians do.
It is also a little bit like what we all do, when we see the news, read newspapers, talk to friends and family and try to understand the world around us. These are the kinds of skills and the type of knowledge (not knowledge of facts but the knowledge that you are equipped to question or investigate) that school history can give to citizens and future voters. It goes without saying that they are also useful for many kinds of work. In what possible way can Gove’s curriculum compete with that?