The Return of the Narrative?

      4 Comments on The Return of the Narrative?

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 or directly by email ( as part of ongoing research

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4 thoughts on “The Return of the Narrative?

  1. Tim Hitchcock

    This is a wonderful post, that captures a real conundrum. I wonder however, if there are not two further elements that need to be incorporated into a broader analysis. First is the role of historical knowledge in creating a shared civic space. In a sense, one of the most important roles of a historical meta-narrative is its use as a language that can be deployed as part of public debate by a majority of people sharing an educational/cultural background. Skills (however sophisticated) can’t serve this function. And second, is the extent to which there is no real conflict between knowledge and skills. The skills of a historian are developed through profound engagement with an infinite archive (are about creating sense from chaos). Meta-narrative and agreed points of change, simply locate the development of those skills one step further into that archive. In other words, it seems to me that we need the outlines of an inclusive world history that can be taught at key stage three, at the same time as we may want to be explicit about teaching historical skills from keystage five or six. One of the great disasters of the 1990s was the extent to which we started defining historical education exclusively through skills, resulting in the absurd situation that the same descriptors were being used for the historical skills being taught ten year olds, as were being deployed in relation to undergraduates.

  2. Alix Green

    Thanks, Tim. I absolutely agree on your point about shared civic space, though I wonder whether there are certain (historical) skills that enable people’s engagement in those very debates that shape it (with that shaping being an active, ongoing and negotiated process). Such a view would be entirely supportive of your second point about the essential connection between knowledge and skills. Indeed, I think, I hope that was an underlying message in my post. The exclusive focus on skills was pretty disastrous, but we will lose something if we lurch to the opposite view, that is, to condemn them (as ahistorical or whatever).
    In Neustadt and May’s book ‘Thinking in Time: the uses of history for decision-makers’ (which I mentioned in my first activehistory post) a key technique is the perpetual oscillation between the trend level and the specifics. I think Gaddis’ work on representation also has a concept of oscillation between different levels. I wonder if that is also a useable concept when it comes to knowledge and skills? It suggests a self-conscious and reflective practice of history that recognises and engages with matters of substance and of method while working practically with the connections between them?

  3. Alix Green

    Simon Schama has written an article in today’s Guardian on the 6 events that all children should be taught in British schools (link attached).

    History, for Schama, provides the long view that counteracts the ‘eternal now’ of a world connected by social media. It is the collective memory, which, if lost, is the ‘undoing of citizenship.’

    It is a compelling argument for the broad sweep approach and his mood is: resolute: ‘there can be no true history that refuses to span the arc, no coherence without chronology’

    He does, briefly, cover some ground on skills, insofar as he responds to what he terms ‘the vulgar utilitarian demand: “Yes, all very nice, I’m sure, but what use is it?” ‘ The choice of language may well serve to capture his attitude to skills, although those he goes on to list represent sound reasons for valuing the development of critical, evaluative and perceptive capacities that enable the kind of understandings he advocates. Indeed, in Schama’s world (where Lady Gaga shares Mother Theresa’s global brand) history is very much useful, despite his efforts to toe a purist line (doth he protest too much?)

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