The Return of History

Raphael Samuel

The restoration of history to the school ‘core curriculum’, if it takes place, and if it survives the counter-pressures in the Government towards TVEI (Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative), will represent one of the more remarkable pedagogic reversals of our time. The privileged place which the new curriculum gives (in my opinion, quite rightly) to British history is in singular contrast to the implosion which has taken place in English studies, and the abandonment – now endorsed by the National Curriculum Council – of both English literature as a separate classroom subject, and set texts, the ‘cultural heritage’ which it was the special mission of school English to transmit.

For some thirty years the whole tendency of educational reform has been cross-curricular and multi-disciplinary. In the modernising moment of the Sixties, historians, the younger and more ardent spirits at least, were only too anxious to present their work in terms borrowed from other disciplines and even to present their findings as illustrations of theoretic models and truths. ‘Excessive’ specialisation, according to the conventional wisdom of the time, was ‘academic’, divisions in knowledge ‘artificial’, subject-based learning an obstacle to comparative perspective. The winds of change required a frontierless open space, in course design no less than in campus architecture. In the new universities, then the pace-setters for educational innovation, history was absorbed in larger frameworks and organised not in departments but in interdisciplinary schools – ‘Comparative Government’ at the University of Essex, ‘Cultural and Community Studies’ at Sussex. There was a similar pattern at the polytechnics, where from the start single-subject honours degrees were unknown, and where modular courses moved towards a Post-Modernist ‘pick and mix’.

Sociology was a dominant influence on the ‘new wave’ history of the time. In the new cottage industry of urban history, monographs, when they began to appear, typically focused on stratification and social structure. Past and Present, at the apogee of its influence in this decade, treated history as a branch of the behavioural sciences, following the destiny of achievers in Ancient Rome, patterns of leisure in the Industrial Revolution and rituals of riot. The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, which began its official life in 1964, devoted its whole initial effort to establishing the antiquity of the ‘nuclear’ family, testing a well-worn sociological hypothesis against the parish records of births, marriages and deaths. As E.H. Carr put it in 1961, brilliantly anticipating, here as elsewhere, some of ‘new wave’ history’s ruling passions, ‘the more sociological history becomes and the more historical sociology becomes, the better for both.’ Such precepts were still in the ascendant in 1976, when the opening number of History Workshop Journal fired an ill-directed salvo against them.

In the schools, under the influence of the comprehensive movement, the pressures against subject-based teaching were even stronger. In primary schools history was apt to disappear in integrated studies, or was subsumed in such epic titles as ‘Man’ (according to a recent HMI report, only 15 per cent of primary-school children do anything called history); in the secondary schools it was promoted, or protected, as a variant of ‘Humanities’ or World Affairs, while for the less able children it was smuggled in under the rubric of ‘social studies’.

The status of history was also put in doubt by the insistent demand for ‘relevance’, which has been a leitmotiv of curriculum innovation and reform ever since the Robbins and Crowther Reports. In the early Sixties, with a prime minister promising to sweep the ‘dead wood’ from the boardrooms and subject venerable institutions to the ‘white heat’ of modern technology, history carried the stigma of being old-fashioned, and there was a concerted attempt to abandon earlier periods and drag the subject kicking and screaming into the 20th century. As J.H. Plumb, that weathervane of the liberal establishment, put it, when writing of ‘the crisis in the humanities’, ‘few hearts swell with pride in Mosley Road Secondary Modern School at the thought of Magna Carta or Waterloo’; the humanities ‘must ... adapt themselves to ... a society dominated by science and technology’. ‘What is needed is less reverence for tradition and more humility towards the educational systems of those two great countries – America and Russia – which have tried to adjust their teaching to the urban, industrial world of the 20th century.’ The raising of the school-leaving age to 16 and the lowering of the voting age to 18 provided a further rationale for making the school syllabus more contemporary. ‘It is surely far more important,’ Edward Short, Labour’s Minister of Education, told the Association of Education Committees in 1968, ‘for young people to know the facts about Vietnam than it is to know all the details of the Wars of the Roses.’

These modernising tendencies were very much to the fore in CSE, the school-leaving examination introduced in 1964 with the aim of giving every school-leaver some kind of qualification. Economic and social history constituted the record of ‘industrial society’, general history that of the modern world, a subject which happily elided history with the present. Similarly, ‘Modern World History’ had pride of place in the Schools Council History Project, while ‘depth’ studies, though taken from earlier periods, seem to have been chosen for the purpose of structured contrast or analogy with the present. Later versions of ‘new history’ have followed suit, offering a history of ‘now’ and ‘then’, or ‘past’ and ‘present’, rather than a chronological and developmental narrative of befores and afters. Tudors and Stuarts, firm favourites, as a period, in the days of the grammar schools, were reserved for the A-Level syllabus, a last redoubt of traditionalism. Medieval history, the original groundwork for history as a teaching subject in the universities, was relegated to the junior schools, as a picturesque matter for projects rather than a testing ground for analytic skills or a source of serious knowledge.

The new methods of teacher-training instituted in the Sixties may also have helped to make historians uncertain about their subject. Under the PGCE, the graduate qualification required for those taking up posts in secondary schools, teachers were encouraged to think of themselves as ‘educationalists’ rather than specialists; to see their role as an enabling rather than a didactic one, and their subjects as adjuncts to the acquirement of cognitive skills. Content was subordinated to the learning process. The ‘new’ history, or what passes for new history in the schools (a phenomenon of the Seventies), was a product of these pedagogic enthusiasms. It owed its authority to neo-Piagetian notions of ages and stages of child development; it sidestepped the issue of content to concentrate on intellectual and perceptual growth. It did not matter so much what the pupils learned as how they learned it, and whether or not a subject developed ‘concepts’. History was not about the past: it was a mode of ideation. It did not have a story to tell: it had a method to impart.

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