Dominic Sandbrook

Make History Great Again!

And stop teaching children to be mortified by the past

Make History Great Again!
The Battle of Lepanto 1571, one of the great turning points in European history (Unknown Artist. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)
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Why don’t today’s children know more about history? In an age when information has never been easier to access, it’s alarming how many youngsters are ignorant about the past. In July, a survey of 1,000 schoolchildren found that four out of ten had no idea what the Battle of Britain was, while another four out of ten had never heard of Cleopatra. More than half didn’t know the Romans spoke Latin.

Of course every generation complains that children are ignorant of facts that we used to take for granted. Often it’s simply a question of changing priorities: where children once learned about Walpole and Gladstone, they now learn about the suffragettes and American civil rights. Even so, despite the success of Horrible Histories, you’d have to be wilfully blind to deny that history itself has rarely seemed so embattled.

In recent years, the culture around our history has been almost entirely negative. Statues are toppled, museums ‘decolonised’, heroes ‘re-contextualised’, entire generations of writers and readers dismissed as reactionaries. When Britain’s past appears in the national conversation, it’s almost always in the context of controversy, apology and blame.

Sir Francis Drake has been transformed from swashbuckling sea captain to cold-hearted slave trader. We hear more about Nelson’s alleged support for the triangular trade — at most, a footnote in his career — than his heroism at Trafalgar. Left to his critics, Churchill is increasingly portrayed as a viciously racist opponent of Indian independence who, in a minor interlude in the 1940s, happened to lead Britain through a passing international kerfuffle.

Against this background, who’d choose to study history? For that matter, who’d be a history teacher? Even selecting a topic for your Year 4 children seems full of danger, with monomaniacal zealots poised to denounce you for reactionary deviation. And all the time you’re bombarded with ‘advice’, often in the most strident and intolerant terms. The National Education Union, for example, has advised its members that ‘British imperialism and racism’ should be woven into all history lessons from nursery upwards, so children can learn about ‘white privilege and colonialism’.

That’s the language: at once priggish, hand-wringing and hectoring, forever painting our history as a subject of shame. The past, we are told, is a place of trauma, suffering and victimhood. The National Trust’s much-criticised dossier about its country houses’ colonial connections opens by talking of the ‘sometimes uncomfortable role that Britain, and Britons, have played in global history’, and piously warns the reader that our history is ‘difficult to read and to consider’. The Trust’s Colonial Countryside Project encourages creative writing about ‘the trauma that underlies’ many country houses. In other words, drag the kids around an old property and make them feel miserable. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt that’ll make historians of them.

What explains all this? Part of it, I think, reflects an unconscious Americanisation of our public discourse, in which the black civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s looms as the most important — indeed, the only important — historical event. Go into Waterstones, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a children’s book on the Norman conquest or English civil war; but you can hardly move for biographies of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

Behind this lurks the spectre of ‘relevance’, a word history teachers ought to treat with undiluted contempt. History isn’t about you; that’s what makes it history. It’s about somebody else, living in an entirely different moral and intellectual world. It’s a drama in which you’re not present, reminding you of your own tiny, humble place in the cosmic order. It’s not relevant. That’s why it’s so important.

So how should we write history for children? The answer strikes me as blindingly obvious. As a youngster I was riveted by stories of knights and castles, gods and pirates. What got me turning the pages wasn’t the promise of an ‘uncomfortable’ conversation. It was the prospect of a good story. Alexander the Great crossing the Afghan mountains, Anne Boleyn pleading for her life on the way to the scaffold, Britain’s boys on the beaches of Dunkirk, Archduke Franz Ferdinand taking the wrong turn at the worst possible moment... that’s more like it, surely?

A great story, then. And a great setting. All children are fascinated by alien worlds, from the planets of Star Wars to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Why should Cleopatra’s Alexandria, with its melting pot of languages and religions, its temples and theatres, its lighthouse and library, be any less intoxicating? True, it was unequal, poor, dangerous and cruel — and there were a lot of slaves. But do you get children interested by encouraging them to shake their heads in confected outrage? Of course not. You get them to lap it up, to imagine themselves catapulted into a different world.

There’s also the characters. That’s what history’s really about, don’t you think? Not issues, but people. The great names: Thomas More in the Tower, Edith Cavell facing the firing squad, T. E. Lawrence riding across the desert. And the not-so-great names: a gladiator making his debut at the Colosseum, a Polish schoolgirl in the Warsaw uprising, a boy sailor at the Battle of Jutland. And yes, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King too. But not just them. The heroes of previous generations were heroes for a reason. There’s not a child alive who wouldn’t be thrilled by the story of Nelson or Napoleon. Why deny them the pleasure?

Finally, the most important thing of all. Not a place, time or character, but an attitude. ‘The past is a foreign country,’ L.P. Hartley famously wrote at the beginning of his great novel The Go-Between, ‘they do things differently there.’ Exploring that vast, impossibly rich country ought to be one of the most exciting intellectual adventures in any boy or girl’s lifetime — not an exercise in self-righteous mortification. Put simply, it should be fun. This is why children fall in love with history. Not because it’s relevant, or improving, or even instructive. And certainly not because it fosters grievance and victimhood. Not because it’s ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘necessary’. But because it’s fun. That’s the best reason to do anything, isn’t it?