Lisa Hilton

We treat our pupils like Aldous Huxley’s Gammas

The historian Lisa Hilton is dismayed by the government’s latest proposals for the teaching of history in which the understanding of complex narrative will be marginalised

Text settings

The historian Lisa Hilton is dismayed by the government’s latest proposals for the teaching of history in which the understanding of complex narrative will be marginalised

Like any self-respecting adolescent, I spent most of my teenage years referring to my parents as fascists. What exactly that meant I had little idea, thanks to a state education in which world history consisted of Romans, mediaeval monasteries, the Industrial Revolution and the first world war, in a repetitious carousel of unrelated events.

Presumably today’s stroppy brats can malign their parents with impunity, as practically all they learn about is Hitler, yet what of those other much used critical terms — ‘imperialist’, ‘colonialist’, or the ever more reified ‘democracy’? This matters. It’s not just pedantic peevishness. These are the terms around which political judgments are based, and they are hurled right and left with little concern for the historical implication of their use. They form the basis of a political discourse which is increasingly divorced from meaningful knowledge. How is it possible to make decisions if we don’t really know what we are talking about? Before he had to worry about saving the world, Gordon Brown spent much of last year drivelling on about Britishness and the values of citizenship, yet current government thinking on history teaching seems to deny students the opportunity to consider what those values consist of.

In a curriculum which currently devotes less than 4 per cent of its time to history, the suggestions of the recent Rose report seem intent on further severing the essential bond between knowledge and meaningful political participation. We don’t need Orwell to remind us that control of the future is predicated on possession of the past. In the absence of historical certainty, that past becomes a palimpsest upon which convenient ‘truths’ can be re-inscribed with impunity. Without history we are vulnerable, atomised, denied identity. How can you vote for what you want to be when you don’t know who you are?

In direct contrast to 1992’s ‘Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools’, which called for more specialised subject-related teaching, Sir Jim Rose now advocates that historical understanding only be taught in relation to ‘human social and environmental characteristics’. Cause, effect and consequence are to be shelved in favour of an approach which cherry-picks historical ‘scenario’ as part of an interdisciplinary approach. Read against the sinister platitudes of the Early Years guidelines, which emphasise the unique qualities of the ‘individual learning journey’, the report is a blueprint for depriving children of any coherent understanding of the forces which made the world they inhabit. In a vocabulary awash with entitlement, this is the one thing which students apparently no longer deserve.

Critics of the 1992 report suggested that government philosophy treated children as ‘units’ to be prepared for the world of work. Oliver James, the author of Affluenza and campaigner against ‘selfish capitalism’ recently suggested that the principal problem with modern education was the view that schools are extensions of corporate human resources departments.

David Kynaston’s research into mass observation responses to postwar history teaching suggests that many students felt alienated by its insistence on dead monarchs, whilst progressives have long and rightly been suspicious of Gradgrindish adherence to facts. Yet the language of low expectation in both the latest Rose report and Early Years disguises precisely such a philosophy in insidious doublethink. Not quite electrocuting the Gammas of the brave new world should they summon the audacity to approach a book, but something close. Don’t challenge, don’t provoke, endorse and praise and all they’ll have to do is pin the name badge to the cheerful school sweatshirt to be ready for the call centre.

Suggesting that children are incapable of dealing with complex narrative is intensely patronising. They manage fine with Harry Potter. Like it or not, our island story is a rollicking good read, with as many battles and murders as Grand Theft Auto. Certainly, much British history is of necessity concerned with the activities of elites, but is it not worth understanding why this is so? One doesn’t need to be a Whig to see the value of a story which explains how we got to where we are. Why assume that children’s understanding of issues such as multiculturalism or Europe might not be enhanced by learning about Commonwealth initiatives post-1945 or the Angevin empire? The study of British history does not need to be unquestioningly patriotic — the Peasants’ Revolt or the Irish Famine are as righteous subjects as one could wish for, yet it is pointless to teach them without context. The rights and wrongs of imperialism are shown to be as complex when considered in terms of Suez as they are simplistic in view of the rapaciousness of the East India Company.

Rose’s suggestions also seem blind to the reality of how history will be increasingly absorbed. Is it not irresponsible to deny children the capacity to assess information for bias, distortion and inaccuracy in a world of unsupervised, unfiltered internet access? Good history teaching provides a confident perspective from which to dismiss, as much as absorb, the massive amounts of information with which children will be daily bombarded on the web. Huxley’s Bernard Marx claims that 62,400 repetitions equal one truth; not an implausible figure in the age of Google. The extent to which consensus is capable of creating reality is alarmingly suggested in a recent text poll of 50 million predominantly young Russians asked to name their greatest national figure. The 13th-century warrior Alexandr Nevsky came first, but Stalin was only pushed into third place by a last-minute television rally.

The oral epics of pre-literate cultures, from Homeric Greece to the Siberia of Maadai-Kara, saw poets revered as the guardians of national consciousness. In denying children the thrill of our own epic historical narrative we also deny them the option to compare, to judge, above all to refuse. Surely the point of all humanities teaching is not the regurgitation of whichever facts the government deems appropriate, but the ability, quite simply, to think? Orthodoxy is the absence of thought. At least, given the current curriculum’s obsession with fascism, that is a truth which every schoolchild knows.