As discontent sweeps the Middle East, people in the West, including our esteemed leaders, are turning to history in search of answers. Both Cameron and Obama are anxious to show they have learnt the painful lessons of the past. While it is deeply controversial what these lessons may be, Western leaders were determined to go through the UN and gain the support of the Arab League before any large scale intervention in Libya. Events across the globe have highlighted the importance of historical awareness in the modern world.
This preoccupation with history is not restricted to foreign policy, it also saturates the Coalition agenda. This is most obvious in their proposed educational reform, which is both radical and urgently needed. These changes are intended to be a lasting reform of the national curriculum. Indeed, the Coalition has made a serious effort to ensure they stand the test of time.
At the centre of these new proposals is a drastic rewriting of the history curriculum, not just on what to study but a complete rethinking on how it should be studied. History is a subject in crisis according to Niall Ferguson, the controversial historian appointed alongside Simon Schama as the Government’s new advisors on history teaching in schools.
These two historians agree; the way history is taught has got to change. Those of you exposed to history at school will be all too familiar with the kind of tired, “skills-based”, source exercises and the bewildering scattergun of periods chosen to edify a usually unwilling audience. If Schama and Ferguson are to be believed this well-trodden territory is about to be junked in favour of a return to basics – a chronological, narrated island story with a focus on British identity and an eye towards current affairs and the perceived interests of a multicultural nation in desperate need of education.
To some, all of this sounds worryingly nationalistic and while Ferguson’s face at the wheel is terrifying to some, Schama’s presence is more reassuring. “History is dangerous”, claims Schama, he is in favour of facing Britain’s now troubling historical legacy – particularly with regard to empire – head on. His plans aim at the epic, claiming that children understand and connect with history as a story. If new figures are to be believed, this connection and fresh enthusiasm are desperately needed to save history lessons from extinction. Currently 25% of schools no longer teach history lessons in year 7 while design and technology and psychology have both proved more popular with students.
The time for change is ripe, but it is difficult to see how any agreement on content or form will ever be reached. However, this new concern with how history should be taught is extremely welcome and long overdue. The fact that the Government is consulting some of the most highly regarded historians in the world is reassuring and should be acknowledged.
While world leaders are grappling with the meaning of history and how this should impact on the future, we must remain vigilant and ensure political messages from on-high do not sneak into the classroom. Schama and Ferguson’s proposals look promising but whether the opinionated and cocksure Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, can leave history teaching to the professionals is a question that is yet to be answered.