Vol. 33 No. 7 · 31 March 2011

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Interpretations of History

In his trenchant piece attacking the current government’s moves to reform history teaching, which are based in large part on the belief that the present curriculum, as he puts it, ‘focuses too much on transmitting skills and not enough on teaching facts’, my colleague Richard J. Evans states that ‘not one professional historian employed by a British university has spoken out either in favour of these ideas or against them’ (LRB, 17 March). May I hold up my hand here? In 2002, in a think-tank pamphlet, I advocated less emphasis on skills and more on knowledge, a less constraining examination system, and a curriculum in GCSE and A level History that would move away from teaching history as disconnected fragments – dismissed by Evans as ‘a return to narrative’.

I doubt that anyone interested in history, professionally or otherwise, thinks that the purpose of studying the past is to acquire skills, let alone that what Evans describes as ‘the transmission and regurgitation of “facts"’ is unimportant. He obviously does not when he lectures on the Holocaust. He warns against ‘sacrificing depth for breadth’, but deftly turns the argument on its head when advocating geographical breadth over national depth. Could any curriculum provide skills-focused specialisation and yet satisfy the aspiration of students, which Evans commends, to acquire historical knowledge of every world trouble spot? Is it unreasonable for schoolchildren to gain a basic knowledge of the history of the country in which they live? Why does it make ‘far more sense’ to teach them about countries where ‘their families originated’? A grasp of the history of one country might provide some standard of comparison with developments elsewhere. It might prevent fatuous assertions about Britain being ‘the world’s oldest democracy’, as a prominent politician recently claimed in the context of the Arab revolutions. It might make possible a less abysmal level of debate about electoral reform. It might even enable younger people to understand Andrew O’Hagan’s emotion about the NHS in your previous issue – how many have even heard of Aneurin Bevan?

The present system – curriculum, examination methods and teaching practices combined – is ineffective in producing skills or knowledge, breadth or depth. It drills students to write formulaic essays on causation and mechanically ‘evaluate’ miscellaneous texts for ‘reliability’. And it’s boring: students and teachers are stuck in a round of tests, exercises and exams, which discourages them from venturing outside the limits of a fragmented and decontextualised curriculum. Hence a level of ignorance that still sometimes makes me gasp, and complacency about that ignorance, as if no one could possibly know anything not specifically taught. Many of our colleagues lament this but universities help to perpetuate it by the inflexibility of their admissions policies. History undergraduates then unlearn the ‘skills’ laboriously inculcated. These weaknesses are deeply ingrained in our educational culture, and can’t be changed overnight. But one has to start somewhere.

Evans’s article is subtitled ‘The Tory Interpretation of History’, but his scorn, which I applaud, is aimed at Panglossian ‘Whig history’. I’m not sure what a genuine Tory interpretation would look like: it has been absent from our culture since Hume. But if one could imagine such a thing, it would ideally be less crassly present-centred, less vapidly self-congratulatory, more appreciative of other cultures, and more able to admit that we might be doing things wrong.

Robert Tombs
University of Cambridge

Since I helped to write the current National Curriculum for History it might be assumed that I am feeling pleased at Richard J. Evans’s defence of it. Sadly, this is not the case. The mass exodus of pupils when the subject becomes optional at age 14 is testimony to the failure of that curriculum. Evans underplays the importance of narrative and the way in which children, especially young children, need it to make sense of the world and its past. He argues that narrative is unreliable but doesn’t mention the degree of subjective judgment involved in selecting and using historical evidence in the classroom. He sees the ‘transmission and regurgitation’ of facts as ‘calamitous’ but fails to acknowledge the extent of factual ignorance revealed in survey after survey.

Evans has, at least, seen the flaws in the ideas of the so-called Better History Group. Its attempt to hijack school history by imposing specific questions that will frame teaching should be resisted. So where do we go from here? How about liberalising the history curriculum, sketching in a few landmark headings and letting the teachers get on with it in a way that allows them to be enthusiastic about their jobs?

Christopher McGovern
History Curriculum Association

The real problem with the school curriculum lies not in the nature of the subject matter but the insolence of politicians, and I doubt it is confined to history. For Michael Gove, government prescription in detail of what should be taught in schools is only natural, right and proper. In this he is, like the rest of the political class, only subscribing to an axiom that has been securely held for a generation or more. Well-trained history graduates are taught to think for themselves, and will find no pleasure or satisfaction working in a system that demands little of a teacher beyond diligence, conformity and a taste for pointless paperwork. They would want and expect to be trusted to make their own judgments on what and how to teach within a framework arrived at by peer consensus, not serve as petits fonctionnaires happy to do the bidding of the state. A recent graduate with a good history degree looking for a job with a measure of intellectual autonomy would do better going into law, journalism or finance – or running a market stall, come to that.

Peter Lloyd
Llandrindod Wells

Having recently retired as a history teacher in comprehensive schools, I was delighted and relieved to read Richard J. Evans’s article. Listening to Michael Gove I had begun to wonder whether I had been teaching to a different national curriculum from everyone else. Throughout my career I tried to impart an idea of chronology to my pupils and to cover most of British history from the Anglo-Saxons through to the end of the Second World War. This necessarily meant teaching some periods in less detail but there was plenty of time for the Middle Ages as well as detailed study of the causes of the English Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and the First World War. It seemed very important to look at other parts of the world, so we studied Ancient Roman history and the Incas too. I do wonder where Gove has been getting his information: it certainly doesn’t match up with the work being done in Shropshire.

Jackie Williams
Pontesbury, Shropshire

I would add a couple of points to Richard J. Evans’s critique. ‘National’ history conflates three different ideas: those of place, group and institution. The place is the national homeland; the group is the nation; the institution is the nation-state. Although linked in modern times in the form of the democratic nation-state with a distinct territory and mass citizenry, the three ideas are always in fact distinct and in earlier times were largely unconnected. ‘Whose’ were the British Isles in 800, 1100, 1400, 1700 and 2000? ‘Whose’ state? There is no answer to such questions that everyone could agree on. To fuse these three distinct notions is an ideological move to promote an identity or interest. Once armed with this ideology one can tell stories to promote it. However, to understand narrative history properly one must be aware of what it is that is being narrated. Presenting national history in the form of ready-to-eat narratives is no way to get young people to think about the human past. Indeed, the more delicious it tastes – and Schama certainly does delicious – the more harm it can do.

John Breuilly
London School of Economics

The words ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ in Richard J. Evans’s article on the Tory vision for history in schools could be replaced throughout with the words ‘English’ and ‘England’. This is not a knee-jerk grumble: the ‘island story’ being espoused by Gove and Schama seems to be predicated almost entirely on an English vision of England, as Evans himself suggests. Gove’s historical panorama looks like a foreign land to those of us who studied history in Scottish schools, which is extremely odd since Gove himself was educated in Aberdeen, at a school that follows the Scottish curriculum.

Margaret Graves
University of Edinburgh

‘What makes good TV doesn’t necessarily make for good teaching,’ Richard J. Evans writes, lamenting the choice of Simon Schama as the government’s adviser on history teaching in schools. The flailing performance of Schama’s fellow populist David Starkey in the first episode of Jamie’s Dream School (the current Channel 4 reality show, in which celebrities are brought in to teach disadvantaged children) effectively demonstrates Evans’s point, as well as its equally depressing obverse: that bad teaching makes for great TV.

Edmund Gordon
London NW10

Eliot v. Mansfield

C.K. Stead states that Katherine Mansfield observed T.S. Eliot ‘closely and accurately’, an accuracy that didn’t always extend to spelling his name correctly (LRB, 3 March). He is ‘sure’ that Lady Rothermere didn’t need Mansfield’s prompting to find the first issue of the Criterion – which launched The Waste Land – ‘dull’. However, when Stead declares that Eliot’s dislike of Mansfield was founded on nothing ‘except insecurity and paranoia’, we are entitled to wonder to what extent it was a reaction to Mansfield’s visceral loathing of his wife, recorded after a 1920 dinner party (‘I dislike her so immensely. She really repels me. She makes me shiver with apprehension’). And surely Eliot was wise to mistrust John Middleton Murry, who acquired a reputation in literary London for his keen solicitude for the welfare of the wife in failing marriages. Further volumes of Eliot’s letters will not support Stead’s assertion that ‘Murry recedes from the picture’ of the Eliots’ marital distress.

Jason Harding
Durham University


David Kaiser, in discussing Roger Penrose’s predictions about the cosmos in 10100 years’ time, equates that interval with the current age of the universe raised to the tenth power (LRB, 17 February). While the age of the universe is of the order of 1010 years, and (1010)10 does indeed equal 10100, the units of the latter quantity would be years raised to the tenth power rather than years, making the comparison meaningless. To illustrate this fact, the numbers come out differently depending on the units chosen: if the current age is measured in seconds, its tenth power comes out at more like 10170 seconds10, whereas 10100 years is 10107 in seconds. On the other hand, the error underlines Kaiser’s basic point: 10100 years is an incomprehensibly vast stretch of time.

Mark Taylor
Bristol University

‘Oh yeah?’

I have to admit to believing in at least some of what Richard Dawkins doesn’t (Letters, 17 March). For example, Dawkins once said that ‘the achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t even mean anything.’ But I believe they do. Without the work of theologians, would we have had the Crusades? The Inquisition? The destruction of the World Trade Center? How can Dawkins denounce the atrocities committed in the name of religion and then deny that theologians have any practical effect?

Christopher Eddy

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