Letter: Past imperfect

March 9, 2001

I share Beverley Southgate's concern about the declining number of history students (Why I... think history needs a moral purpose, THES, March 2). I suggest several reasons for this:

* The deplorable films he condemns for perpetrating one-sided or grossly oversimplified views of historical events are a man-in-the-street version of the academic view that there is no such thing as truth to be pursued, only views, opinions, perspectives reflecting social biases. It is not asked of a historian, how good is he but only what's his line of goods? This kind of value-free academician destroys the study, as intelligent young people detect its worthlessness
* History already has a moral purpose, which is the broad pursuit of truth. But to view history only from our assumedly virtuous modern standpoint is not to be able to comprehend the mentality and outlook of even quite recent (historically-speaking) times.

* The question with "moral purpose" is: whose and what is it? At higher level, there seems, if anything, too much "purpose": the concentration on Hitler at the expense of much else seems designedly a "lesson from history", but this kind of higher sensationalism falls flat and then even Nazism becomes as dry and academic as any other topic

* Aside from Hitler, modern history syllabuses seem to aim for a study of "isms" with a lurking sermon about perils to democracy. Not only do young people smell a rat, the politico-philosophical emphasis is off-putting and not much to the taste of women, who comprise the majority of history students

* History at school has been so reduced that all continuity of study has been lost. Intelligent young people are bereft of the background that would make later periods intelligible. Paradoxically the shortening of courses to make them more widely accessible has had the opposite effect. Another paradox: a national curriculum as a guarantor of standards makes the situation worse because history as a non-compulsory subject suffers in comparison with compulsory elements

* The GCSE, even when satisfactorily "passed", is an inadequate preparation for the analytical work necessary in higher education, and the stresses experienced lead to dropout.

Nigel Probert

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