Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Making History history

News to me: Ernest Lissner's depiction of the Poles surrendering at Moscow, 1612

I read Niall Ferguson's piece in the Graun on the poor state of state-run school History with a mixture of sympathy, resigned sorrow and I must say a measure of indifference. He is, I am sure right in what he says, and I would agree with him pretty much down the line, if I stood where he does.

I love History, and have done since I was a child. Prior to this moment, I was idly reading up on the French Wars of the Three Henrys, and before that learning something of the Polish-Muscovite War, which was triggered (my interest, not the war) by the picture above, which I saw on the RT website. However, whatever knowledge is stored away in the recesses of my mind, it did not come from the classroom. I dropped the subject aged 13. Before and since I have been eagerly educating myself, and I am confident that I will master the subject, if I apply myself for the next hundred or so years.

Every criticism Ferguson makes, I am sure to have made myself in private discussions. The lack of chronology, jumping back and forth between centuries and millennia, the concentration on histiography (interpreting is all very fine, but you have to learn stuff before you attempt to interpret it), the politically-correct choice of subject matter etc, and the plain fact that they're not doing it the way I would do it!

However, I don't see how this can be changed within the sphere of state education. The educational establishment can withstand any short-term siege by an upstart Minister. As Ferguson notes, Ofsted are content with things as they are, even when supplying the ammunition for his assault, so there will be no call for root and branch reform from that quarter. In any case, I doubt a state-mandated curriculum can ever be effective. Such a thing only continues a never-ending battle over what it should contain. Our society has been fragmented by a cultural war, and the teaching of History is one casualty. I doubt even a definition of the word could be agreed, let alone the syllabus!

So, I guess I'm going to cop out of the argument by playing the libertarian card; that state schooling is the fundamental problem. I am sure I agree with Ferguson on what History is and what it is not, and I think it a shame that most children do not have this on offer at school. What they must do, especially if they have any passion for it, is not wait for educational reforms, but follow their own noses and educate themselves.


cisbio said...

dude, you're right: Blaming the ills of state education simply on the fact that is state education IS a cop out.

I agree that history teaching is pretty vapid right now. But Ferguson's problem with the curriculum is usually that it doesn't conform with his Whig philosophy -you know: how brilliant the British Empire was,how marvelous is western civilisation, etc.

It's a tricky one. While the current curriculum is a random 'smorgasbord', teaching the subject with a strict chronological approach -from the Iron Age to now - would also be superficial and boring for kids.

The basic problem, IMO is that 'history' is not a subject, it's a whole range of subjects. Do we learn 'Science'? No we learn about physics, maths chemistry etc. rant rave

Trooper Thompson said...


kids do indeed start learning science, and then move on to more specialised areas. If history is a 'whole range of subjects' all the more reason to let the schools get on and do what they want, rather than the interfering of state authorities, who are forever cramming subjects into the mandated curriculum.

It would be good if the same approach were adopted with history, so that the basic chronology could be taught, before looking at other things in more detail.

I myself said it was a cop-out, but in my own defence, many of the controversies about schooling are due to it being a state-run organisation. An example is the issue around religious schools. Take away the state interference, and it just comes down to an issue of choice for the parents.

I don't know much about Ferguson. I think I saw him on Question Time recently and found him rather annoying. If he does want to impose a bit of Whig theory, it would most likely introduce a healthy corrective to the chaotic Dr Who-style pinball journey through the centuries.

The problem is that Ferguson's traditional viewpoint has been rejected on political grounds, and the fallacy is that we now have a more balanced, non-jingoistic approach, when in fact now we have a sort of anti-Whig approach, that reinforces the underlying and all-pervading orthodoxy of this age.

As you say it's a tricky one. Still, at least the kids have 'Horrible Histories' - not exactly my cup of tea, but entertaining and informative up to a point.