The vandals of history: Britain's education system has left generations without an understanding of who they are


Vandals of history: No, not the Vikings, but our education system

For more than half a century, most intelligent children in Britain have grown up to live in the half-darkness of historical ignorance.

The result is generations of adults who, having left school, mourn their lack of knowledge about the past but don't know how to remedy it and are soon busy with children of their own.

Their hunger for greater knowledge is evident in the popularity of historical television series, such as we have lately enjoyed with David Dimbleby's cheerful Seven Ages Of Britain, or more substantial offerings from the likes of David Starkey, Simon Schama, Andrew Marr or Niall Ferguson.

For a few evenings we have been gratefully enlightened, and a few important questions have been addressed about our collective island story: what should we hang on to from the past? How do events all link up in sequence . . . and across borders? Is there wisdom to be drawn from past experience that would help us through contemporary crises?

Such questions once formed a cornerstone of our education system, but now lie sadly cast aside.

Personally, I have witnessed this ignorance creeping up on three generations of descendants  -  my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. I count their loss an incalculable deprivation, but they are hardly unique in their lack of historical knowledge.

For over the past half-century, the educational establishment has systematically devalued or vandalised the teaching of history to the point where it is little more than an afterthought.

Is it any wonder, then, that stripped of a working knowledge of our past our younger fellow citizens fumble for purpose as a modern nation? Or that half-educated politicians, vain and glib, tinker with our constitutional inheritance as though it were their personal plaything?

National history

My own generation, born and growing up between one great war and the next, was dramatically endowed with national history that resonated with the more distant past. Alamein was our Agincourt; the Battle of Britain our scattering of the Armada.

We lived for our history, and many, of course, died for it. Few of us escaped the war without losing relatives and friends and neighbours on the frontline abroad or to Luftwaffe bombs at home.

Churchill, our political and iconic leader throughout most of World War II, was himself an historian, inspired and driven by the unity of what he called 'the English-speaking peoples'. We rallied to his cry because we heard, in his speeches and broadcasts, echoes of his ancestor Marlborough and other greater leaders whose words or deeds filled our schoolbooks. Nelson, Burke, Macaulay.

Each fitted into a known and traceable sequence of events and inspired us in a style and spirit that gave us a commonality of place and fate in our darkest hour.

The island people we belonged to were, from 1940 when I was ten, fighting for dear life virtually alone for that year and the next. Just what it meant  -  and just how much depended on the outcome  -  we knew from what our schooling taught us.

At 15, I saw that war end; but three years later, I was conscripted to fight a lesser one, in the Far East. And at 22 I was a roving correspondent, writing for a nation which still knew its history.

Finding myself repeatedly on assignment in a strange country at a moment of crisis, no one needed to tell me that I would make no sense of it for my readers until I had first got to grips with the basics of a region's history: its collective traumas, triumphs, heroes, myths, scars and icons of creative inspiration.

My generation were grounded in our facts and dates; we followed through from causes to consequences; we had our matrix of large events.

Then, in the Sixties, the mood began to change. The rigour and sometimes rote by which we learned was ridiculed as being out of touch, stuck in the past, unfit for a modern world.


Soon enough it became fashionable among educational pioneers to abandon traditional teaching methods altogether.

Instead of learning what the teacher taught them, pupils should, instead, choose for themselves what they wished to learn.

If they chose to play all day, was not that the spirit of freedom and democracy? The young were not to be burdened with dry facts and tedious exams.

History paid a particular price. Soon enough, few teachers remained who knew the subject thoroughly. As for the British story, the mood was one of apology. The narrative syllabus all but vanished; instead it was 'projects': on slavery, Victorian slums, the labour movement or  -  again and again  -  World War II.

Who built St Paul's Cathedral and why? For what purpose the Tower of London or Hampton Court? Whence the Picts, the Celts, the Angles or the Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans? How did our mother of Parliaments come to be? None of this seemed to matter.

A quite serious university the other day proposed that the teaching of narrative history before 1700 was otiose, virtually worthless to a secularised, atomised, job-seeking generation. The classroom subject of history is no longer even compulsory at GCSE.


My own three generations of descendants, a mere 17 of them, have been through, or are going through, schools of every species: state primaries, prep schools, grammars, comprehensives, Quaker.

I have been watching them with poignant concern as they miss out on the historical grounding I benefited from.

The loss is more than mine: it is the nation's. For with no sense of history, we lose the very concept of nationhood itself.

Others have recognised this loss and voiced their protest, David Cameron among them. Bring back our narrative history, they cry.

But will anyone listen? Will anyone actually seek to redress the act of educational vandalism that has been wrought?

As an independent publisher, I have done my small part to help. Two years ago, I commissioned a revival of A History Of Britain, the self-same series of history books that I had grown up with. It was by two teachers of history from the Thirties, E. H. Carter and R.A.F. Mears, the former of whom would retire as chief inspector of schools, the latter as head of history at Warwick School.

I invited David Evans, the inspiring head of history at Eton (then entering retirement), to edit the original five-volume series for young readers of the present age in ten slightly shorter books, unfolding the complex weave from the Romans to the present day, unafraid of dates, periodic summaries, dynastic trees and marginal headings.

This month, we launch the series halfway through the saga, with the Tudors (1485-1603) and the Stuarts (1603-1714). The remaining eight will follow over the next 30 months.

If the schools dash out and buy them, well and good. Yet it's concerned parents, thinking about their own lack of historical knowledge, who I hope will be as keen to brush up on the subject, and lighten their half darkness.

For as a wiser man than I once observed: 'To know nothing of what happened before you took your place on Earth is to remain a child for ever.'


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