Scholars must provide proof of claim that history in the classroom is bunk

Historian calls for evidence, not scaremongering, to inform how subject is taught. Matthew Reisz writes

December 1, 2011

One of Britain's leading historians has called for "serious evidence-based policymaking about history teaching in schools" and an end to a debate characterised by "too much talk of crisis, too much irresponsible scaremongering, too much polarisation of views".

Sir David Cannadine, Dodge professor of history at Princeton University, has recently carried out a major research project with Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon, research fellows at the University of London's Institute of Historical Research.

The results are now published in a book released last week, The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England.

"We have looked at huge amounts of official material, directives from Whitehall going back to the 1900s, and created our own oral history archive of pupils and teachers," Sir David said. "Much of the discussion is very polarised - by academics, by politicians, by journalists looking for a good story."

Debates on knowledge versus skills, elite versus popular history, and whether "we want a cheerleading story of national greatness or something more nuanced", have been around for decades and are unlikely to be sorted out any time soon, he argued. Yet in the classroom, the researchers discovered, "these polarised issues aren't like that".

In putting the case for evidence-based policymaking, the authors of The Right Kind of History argue that much of the debate on history in schools is "extraordinarily ahistorical", including the contributions of leading academic historians such as Richard Evans and Niall Ferguson.

"A lot of discussion is focused around examples of individual schools - though there are many thousands in England - or assumes an earlier golden age," Sir David said.

The priorities of academic historians, he added, were, and should be, only one of the factors determining what is taught in schools.

He does not believe that there is anything fundamental wrong with the national curriculum.

Yet he called for history to be made compulsory in schools up to the age of 16, as is the norm across Europe and would have been the case in England, too, if Kenneth Clarke had not made last-minute changes to the legislation in 1991, when he was secretary of state for education.

"The original construction of the national curriculum," Sir David explained, "did suppose people would be taught history from the ages of five to 16. By truncating it to 14, far too much material is concentrated up until then, which increases the risk of repeating modern history - at 14, at 15 to 16 and then for A level as well."

Other problems are that the Department for Education has often been "curiously isolated", with ministers in post for "the pitifully inadequate average time of two years".

"How serious are governments about education if they keep chopping and changing ministers every two years?" Sir David asked.

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