There have been countless articles like this published in the last year, bemoaning the fact that fewer and fewer school-children now bother taking history past the age of 14.
A typical statistic:
Last year, less than 30 per cent of 16-year-olds in comprehensive schools were entered for GCSE History, compared with 55 per cent of pupils in grammar schools and 48 per cent in private schools.
Alarmingly, there were 159 comprehensives where not a single pupil was entered for GCSE History; and in a majority of state secondaries, less than a quarter of pupils now take the exam. (Daily Mail)
That is concerning. And as Tristram Hunt MP pointed out on the radio this morning, it is particularly concerning if it means that studying history becomes an educational privilege restricted to private schools. For history to become as marginalised in the British curriculum as, say, ancient languages or classics would be catastrophic. That, however, is the way we’re going.
On the surface, it feels like the problem is that no one can make their mind up about what history is for, or indeed whether it should be for anything at all. Do we teach history to develop skills or knowledge? Do we teach history in order to educate our children about the people, events and values that have made Britain great, or to broaden their minds to the alternative narratives of all people all over the world? Should we be teaching them about Lord Nelson, or Nelson Mandela? Winston Churchill or Mary Seacole? Cicero or Confucius? And so on.
The present government seems to have a preference for amending the historical curriculum to equip children to answer trivia questions about British political and constitutional history between the Roman invasion and the Falklands war. It thus fulfils the ‘citizenship’ function - a means by which to introduce kids from all backgrounds to a romantic, patriotic, conservative teleology of Britishness. This gets up lots of left-wing people’s noses, and understandably so.
But whatever. No one will ever settle that argument. For politicians - to bend an Orwell phrase - all history teaching is propaganda: a means of sowing their own political ideology on young minds in the hope that it may flourish in the future. (This may, of course, be one reason why state-school kids, who are not stupid, have no wish to study it.) In a way, it’s healthy that the argument should continue, for as soon as it stops, someone has won, and the propaganda has worked.
The most potent argument I can think for obliging children to continue learning history until the age of 16 (apart from the desire that there should be a forcibly expanded market for my own books, natch) is in fact one that has gone a bit out of fashion this year. History teaches essential, unique skills.
Yes, skills - but before you say ‘ugh, what a filthy, New Labouristic, dismal reason to learn about great events in the past’, think of this. My children - our children - will grow up during the business-end of the Information Revolution. As the internet continues to mature, these children will live their lives bombarded with more words, thoughts, arguments and voices than any generation before them. Wherever their lives take them, they will need to be consummate bullshit detectors.
Which is what history teaches you. Interrogate what you’re reading. Understand the partiality of everything. Think about what you’re being sold. Sniff out propaganda. Understand the myriad clever, and not-so-clever ways in which people have always tried to screw one another over. Spot the lie. Spot the spin. Spot the weasel. Appreciate real heroism. Don’t be gullible.
Well, if history doesn’t teach you that, what does?
In 1999 I took four A-levels: History, Economics, English Literature and Mathematics. If I were doing it all again now, I would do the same again, although perhaps I might swap Eng. Lit. for Computing. Those disciplines seem to me to give you both rigorous old-fashioned learning and valuable skills to make you a useful, engaged, agreeably suspicious person.