Alex Massie

This Island Story

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I half-agree with James's (dangerously!) quasi-Whiggish view on the teaching of British history but would put it slightly differently: pupils in England should learn how Britain became a United Kingdom. (So should Scottish pupils. And Welsh ones too.) Simon Schama's Guardian piece contains a good deal of sense but the most important passage, I think, certainly as regards the teaching of history is this:

My own anecdotal evidence suggests that right across the secondary school system our children are being short-changed of the patrimony of their story, which is to say the lineaments of the whole story, for there can be no true history that refuses to span the arc, no coherence without chronology. A pedagogy that denies that completeness to children fatally misunderstands the psychology of their receptiveness, patronises their capacity for wanting the epic of long time; the hunger for plenitude. Everything we know about their reading habits – from Harry Potter to The Amber Spyglass and Lord of the Rings suggests exactly the opposite. But they are fiction, you howl? Well, make history – so often more astounding than fiction – just as gripping; reinvent the art and science of storytelling in the classroom and you will hook your students just as tightly. It is, after all, the glory of our historical tradition – again, a legacy from antiquity – that storytelling is not the alternative to debate but its necessary condition.

History is a story - or, rather, competing, squabbling stories - that should be vibrant and alive. Taught well - that is, properly - it should excite children. Schama is correct to stress its epic quality, reminding us that many children relish losing themselves in distant, different, complicated worlds.

This isn't to reduce history to a calvacade of Great Men, far from it. Nor is there any need to strain for contemporary "relevance" for, again, if taught well such connections - and, sometimes, the absence of connection - will make themselves apparent without strident prompting. But Schama is also right to argue that today's Britain should have the confidence to teach its history properly and that, far from being irrelevant to today's multi-coloured, polyglot England this story doesn't need to press any case for relevance at all:

Tell a classroom of 12-year-olds the story of the British (for they took place across our nations) civil wars of the 17th century and all those matters will catch fire in their minds. Explain how it came to be that in the 18th century Britain, a newly but bloodily united kingdom, came somehow to lose most of America but acquire an Indian empire, to engross a fortune on the backs of slaves but then lead the world in the abolition of the trade in humans; explain all that, and a classroom of pupils whose grandparents may have been born in Mumbai or Kingston will grasp what it means to be British today, just as easily as a girl whose grandparents hail from Exeter or Aberdeen.

Quite so. Recalling my own GSCE history days, too much, much too much, time was spent on 20th century history. The First World War, the Suffragettes, the first stirrings of the welfare state, the Russian Revolution and, of course, the rise of Hitler are all noble subjects. But there's more, much more, to this island's story than this. Broader, longer, outline courses that explore how Britain came to be Britain would, I suggest, be preferable.

So, two cheers at least for Schama's suggestions that the 17th and 18th centuries should be at the core of any new school history curriculum in England. (With different emphasis, I think they should be at the heart of the Scottish history syllabus too - though obviously within the larger story of relations with our elephantine southern neighbour.)

It should all, as Schama says, be taken in the round anyway: the story is large enough to need neither one-eyed patriotic boosterism nor any dismal sense of ashamed self-flagellation.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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