The teaching of history is one of the most perennial topics of controversy in the school curriculum. The current review of the national curriculum is bringing the topic into sharp relief once more, and now two eminent historians – David Abulafia and Robert Tombs, from the University of Cambridge, have proposed their own models for the teaching of history in a pamphlet for the think tank Politeia. Abulafia, himself the author of a stunning Human History of the Mediterranean, outlines 37 key dates and events which should form the backbone of every child’s learning of the past – from the Anglo-Saxon invasions of ca 500 AD to Tony Blair’s election victory of 1997, by way of the Peasants’ Revolt (1381), the loss of the American colonies (1776) and the Irish Home Rule bill (1886).
The central problem, of course, is that there is just too much history to teach. Any history curriculum is a selection from what might be taught, and any selection betrays the assumptions and biases of the selector. Compulsory education was extended in most countries in the later nineteenth century – a development omitted from Abulafia’s list – and the development of national identity was one of the principal pre-occupations of the prescribed curricula which were developed then. A sense of identity – personal, communitarian, national – has remained a concern of school curricula, but it’s all much more difficult now in a closely inter-dependent, multi-cultural world. So Abulafia’s list contains Indian Independence (1947) but not Clive’s triumphs in India in 1757 or the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Any selection involves other selections if history is not, in the words of the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay, to be one damned thing after another.
A more challenging problem for the building of history curricula is the vexed issue – one which we now have a good deal of research and knowledge – of what it means to “know” and understand history. There’s a good deal of evidence that pupils learn history not by accumulating information – important though that is – but by progressively developing deeper understanding of key concepts – causation, consequence, change, significance, the ability to select evidence and so on. Without proper attention to these concepts, history remains inert information, and a chronologically structured history curriculum will produce a five year old’s understanding of the Anglo-Saxons and a sixteen year old’s understanding of the Labour victory in 1997: any argument for a “strong narrative thread” inevitably falls into this trap.
The good news – and good news is rarely reported – is that history teachers are amongst the best qualified teachers in schools, and Ofsted’s most recent survey report (2011) found that in a majority of schools they were able to build intellectually challenging courses which shuttled between the information base and the conceptual frameworks in ways which supported high quality learning. A third Cambridge historian, Richard Evans, Regius professor of history, who has taken time to explore teaching in schools, pronounces himself impressed by the quality of national curriculum history. It’s not surprising that history teaching is perennially controversial, touching as it does on issues of identity, power, and social change. Perhaps its equally unsurprising that Cambridge dons cannot agree on it.