The history curriculum in UK schools is to be overhauled with the help of Simon Schama, an announcement made five months after the controversy sparked by the alleged invitation extended to Niall Ferguson. The concerns remain the same: that history is disappearing through falling demand, at least in state schools; that where it is taught, the topic-based approach of the national curriculum develops no sense of a coherent narrative of British history and necessarily omits important episodes and figures (such as Churchill). ‘The trashing of our past has to stop,’ Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, insisted, echoing Ferguson’s call for a ‘campaign against junk history’ following recent, successful campaigns to improve school meals.
Geoffrey Alderman agreed. He argued that pupils lack a grasp of the broad sweep of British history, as teaching has moved away from a survey approach to one focused on skills. Proponents of the latter regard history’s major importance as lying in the discipline’s development of critical and evaluative faculties and the ability to construct a sound argument. History does indeed develop these skills, Alderman argues, but that is not its purpose: ‘History is the collective memory of society. It is that memory which informs society’s attitude to itself and to the world around it.’
What’s particularly interesting from my point of view as a researcher looking at history and policy is the parallels between this debate and those about public history and ‘usable pasts’ (Jordanova’s phrase). Both have a central concern with whether the transmission of history is fundamentally about transmission of knowledge of the past or of the intellectual skills needed to interpret the past and critique historical accounts. Holger Hoock reports in the introduction to the latest issue of The Public Historian – which focuses on professional practices in Britain – the argument being made by Jordanova and Tosh in particular that ‘modes of historical thinking and critical skills’ need to be modelled and conveyed as much as ‘knowledge and content’.
While the direction of travel in the UK academic discipline seems to be towards greater commitment to sharing the reasoning processes and practices that historians use to interpret the past with their audiences, skills are in far less favour when it comes to Government’s view of school history. Knowledge must take primacy, according to Gove: ‘It is critical that we ensure that every child has a proper spine of knowledge-the narrative of the history of these islands. Without that, the skills of comparison and of examining primary and secondary sources and drawing the appropriate conclusions, are meaningless.’
In this account, which seems to have wider resonance, (if comments left by readers to online newspaper articles are anything to go by) skills have no intrinsic value: they are merely tools. To focus teaching on skills is to devalue history, as the narrative is modularised into thematic chunks for ready application of the required techniques.
I don’t dispute the need for historical knowledge, nor that specialist knowledge of a particular period or phenomenon may be best supported by exposure to the “broad sweep” that survey history gives. But I would argue that drawing out the thinking processes on which the discipline depends enhances rather than devalues engagement with history. In fact, I’m wondering whether it does more than that. My current research is exploring whether “thinking with history” can enhance policy development and decision-making processes, not so much through the provision of “accessible” reflections on the policy implications of historical scholarship (as per the aims of the History & Policy network) but by being embedded in those processes. If skills are dead in our children’s classrooms, can they live long in the corridors of power?
The author is a part-time Ph.D. student and would welcome views and contributions either on activehistory.ca or directly by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) as part of ongoing research