October 28, 2005

Ferdinand Mount may have the answer

Ferdinand Mount’s op-ed piece in today’s Daily Telegraph, not a newspaper one quotes much these days, deals with the teaching of history in British schools. Or, to be quite precise, with the non-teaching of history.

He starts with quoting the sonorous Bishop of London, whose sermon on the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar seems to have been well up to par.

“"There has never been a generation better informed about 'now' with so little sense of how we came to be here," he thundered at the Trafalgar bicentenary service last Sunday. "Every child in this country ought to have the opportunity of meeting Lord Nelson and considering his legacy."”

(Incidentally, the Bishop of London is, indeed, sonorous. I once had the misfortune of having to speak just after him at a panel discussion of the European Constitution. I doubt if the audience heard much of what I had to say, so mesmerized they were by his voice still. Luckily, he, too, opposed that wretched document.)

The trouble is, as Mount points out, that the Bishop has no power even over the Church of England schools in London. Nobody, apart from officials who are often ex-teachers, who did not make the grade, and union officials have the power.

The much-trumpeted Government White Paper on Education has turned out to be a damp squib. Real power will still be left in the hands of the official, local and central and as the Office for Standards in Education gloomily acknowledged last week, the teaching of history has become something of a joke in primary and secondary school. And, they added, it is going to get worse. History is to be sidelined completely.

Ferdinand Mount does not mention this, but there is a little hope to be gleaned from the Conservatives, who shy away like horses who hear artillery fire from the idea of handing power over to parents in the shape of vouchers.
Still, he does have one interesting and very practical idea:

“Meanwhile, I have a modest suggestion. Suppose that, each week, every local authority fires one educational bureaucrat and hires instead one qualified history teacher. After a year or two of this, every GCSE candidate ought to be able to run up from memory the 32 flags spelling out "England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty".”

Read the full article here.

Posted by Helen Szamuely at October 28, 2005 03:34 PM
Comments

Helen:
The non-teaching of history is a bane througout the industrialized countries. Canada has a similar problem and in Quebec it's just as dismal.
I'm deeply distressed.
How can we hire qualified history teachrs when they've brought up on a diet of dubious training?

Posted by: xavier at October 28, 2005 04:49 PM

Helen, you are right on target.

Certainly throughout the Anglosphere the teaching of our histories is dismal. At the same time the general reading public is devouring huge quantities of books on historical topics, and the Hitler (uh, that's "History") Channel thrives, albeit with a rather limited scope. perhaps the solution lies outside of the school system altogether.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at October 28, 2005 04:58 PM

The need is upon us to move on and get this stuff taught to people while recognizing that the schools, by and large, are irrelevant or worse. The teaching colleges in the USA are in the possession of people at once dimwitted, Leftist and bureaucratic. Trying to change them would be a waste of time.

The adult population, as Jim notes, love their history. When well-taught, children like it too.

The challenge it to reach them, mostly via new media, with historical products, e.g. these.


Posted by: Lex at October 28, 2005 05:13 PM

I agree entirely with all the above, though I think it is, for some reason, the Anglosphere that seems to suffer from this official desire to forget its past. The people, of course, are different. They want to learn history and history books, historians, history programmes are more popular than the cookery ones. Certainly in Britain. I did at one point moot the idea that I shall establish a private academy of history, dedicated entirely to the teaching of the history of Britain. I then realized that I would have to expand it to include the Anglosphere. Though, in many ways, the history of Britain is the history of the world.

One of the stupidest aspects of this non-teaching of history is that if it were taught properly, there would be a place for many of those more recent immigrants in the narrative. Muslims, certainy from the Inidan sub-continent have a well-defined and honourable place in the history of Britain, the British Empire, the Commonwealth and, now, the Anglosphere.

Posted by: Helen at October 28, 2005 05:36 PM

Helen:
Intriuguing proposal.
Could you elaborate on the role of the Muslims within the Anglosphere? Sounds like a great topic to start off the Helen academy for history teaching :)
Seriously though, I'm intrigued by the topic.

Jim:
Is the 'official' desire to forget an Anglosphre phenomenon or one that afflicts all industralized countries?
xavier

Posted by: xavier at October 28, 2005 06:46 PM

History is too important to be left to the historians. That is why all the historical books being purchased by the general public are by non-academics. If we get the historians to teach I shudder to think what would be taught. Better to let those who care about it learn the past themselves. And what better way to start than Terry Deary's Horrible Histories. These are among the most well read books in our house and opened the gates for our children to pursue more serious inquiries that will last their whole lives, we hope.

Posted by: Richard Heddleson at October 28, 2005 06:47 PM

The lack of history teaching in our schools is one aspect of the Anglo tendency towards suicidal self-immolation. Perhaps intrinsically we are so confident about who we are we make no effort at preserving our memory and identity and relearning the ancient base from which we spring. Or perhaps it's just a particular product of the me-generation currently in power. The wreckers who don't see themselves as trustees of the past, so busy they are disinheriting the future from it. This generation knows better, it doesn't need to consult history, traditions are something to be discarded and forgotten, the social contract is not between the present, past and future, but merely between themselves.

Posted by: Michael J. Smith at October 28, 2005 11:30 PM

It's also worth pointing out that preserving the history of a people would not be consistent with multiculturalist ideology, another aspect of our disturbing tendency towards self-immolation. Just to illustrate how ridiculous and laughable multiculturalism has become, the Toronto District School Board the other day decided to forgo traditional Halloween celebrations in the classroom in order that Wiccans would not be offended by the "Christian sexist demonization of pagan religious beliefs". Just like that. No more Halloween in the classroom. Forever. These are the people we trust to lead our children's education? Much no wonder we don't teach history anymore.

Posted by: Michael J. Smith at October 28, 2005 11:55 PM

There does seem to me to be a purely Anglospheric (with some exceptions) tendency on the part of the establishment to dislike and despise its own culture. I think it goes back a little further than just the present or immediately past generations. Andrew Roberts in his book on Napoleon and Wellington writes of the Whigs visiting Napoleon on Elba and revealing matters to him that were, strictly speaking, of national interest. Their behaviour was close to actual treason. Think of all those other people who supported the French Revolution long after it stopped being a beacon of hope and became a bloody, oppressive mess and, furthermore, Britain's enemy. Admittedly, this tendency went into abeyance for some time afterwards, to resurface after the 1917 revolution and has, indeed, become stronger in the last thirty years or so.

It seems to me that the problems in Canada are quite similar to the ones in Britain and, to some extent, a partial solution is in our own hands. Only to some extent, I agree, as my comments about the educational system make clear. But in the case of the banned Hallowe'en, is there some reason why the parents cannot all unite and stare the educational oligarchs down? It is only a small thing.

By "history being too important to be left to historians" I take it you mean academic historians, Richard. Largely, I agree with that, though there is the odd exception. In Britain, the country I can speak for best, we have a cohort of historians who have been producing extremely good work and have been very popular. Some are academic but quite a lot not. Also, there is, I believe, throughout the Anglo countries the tradition of the amateur historian - amateur in its original, true and praiseworthy sense.

Xavier,
If you don't mind I shall answer your substantive question (as I understand it) in a tentative posting about a possible place for Muslims in a true narrative of British history. Then other people can pile in as well, I hope. The two best articles on that I have seen in the last few months were by the British journalist Mihir Bose. I shall try to find links to them.

Posted by: Helen at October 29, 2005 04:57 AM

A few Academics in America such as David Hackett Fischer and Jospeh Ellis are writing excellent accessible history, but few others are.

But my comment was more directed to the teaching of history to our children. I am far from convinced, from what I have seen in my daughters' educations, that we would be better off if the current crop of history instructors were teaching our children more of history as they see it. They seem to be doing more damage than we can afford to the content as well as to student enthusiasm as it is.

Fortunately these trends in academia pass over time and I suspect that as this next generation is making better history so it will teach history better when its time comes.

Posted by: Richard Heddleson at October 29, 2005 06:58 PM

The problem with history teaching at school is partly the fault of the teachers we have at the moment and, certainly, at least half would not be considered "qualified" by any standard. Their knowledge and understanding are lamentable. But a bigger part of the problem is the syllabus and, indeed, the entire ethos of the educational establishment. The truth is that children would like to learn history if it were presented to them as a narrative with lots of exciting episodes and even more interesting people, be it the Battle of Trafalgar, explorers setting off into the unknown, the invention of the Spinning Jenny or whatever. And if they are interested, they are more likely to behave well and participate in lessons. This simple truth has escaped our educational establishment. Still, I imagine, to start with we have to teach our history teachers.

Posted by: Helen at October 30, 2005 03:58 AM

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