My memories of primary and high school are very limited. Being the kind of kid who actually wanted to learn, never had a single detention and cried the one time she forgot to bring her homework in (recounting this is all kinds of embarrassing), I had a fairly rough time, and for the most part have deliberately blocked out large swathes of memories.
One thing I do remember in a lot of detail, however, is history classes. From year 2 (ages six and seven) onwards, I can remember a lot of detail about the history I learned: the subject captured my imagination from an early age, and has been a passion and obsession every since.
I’ve just finished a degree in English and – you guessed it! – history, and I firmly believe that (whatever the media/science students/your Dad might say), the study of history is very important. I’m not for a moment about to suggest that it should become a compulsory subject in KS4 (ages 14 to 16), but I honestly believe that the history that is taught until then should not be about learning the details, dates, or names: it should be about capturing the imagination. There is no point in trying to teach grand concepts or big ideas or boring, boring details to younger students because they will never remember them, and it will bore them to tears.
The English National Curriculum for history has been overhauled again and again over the past few months, and historians, politicians and teachers have spent an eternity debating Michael Gove’s history curriculum. It has, variously, been accused of being too detailed, not detailed enough, too British-focused, and not British enough. Questions have been asked about teachers’ potential to offload this information, but no one (as far as I can tell) has stopped to ask if what they are going to teach will actually be interesting to the pupils.
If you can interest pupils in history at an early age, they are more likely to want to study it later. The kind of history it seems to me that Michael Gove wants taught will not do that; and as the cost of degrees rises, people are likely to becoming increasingly unwilling to spend vast sums of money on humanities degrees. Put simply, people are less likely to want to give a shit about the history of the world in which they live. While school history may not majorly affect pupils’ world-views, I think that their levels of interest in it will affect their wider interest in understanding the world around them as they grow older. The choices we make for our future are largely dictated by our understanding of the past, and I do sometimes wonder whether politicians would make the decisions they do if they had a more nuanced knowledge of history.
In school, I learned about (in order, from years 2 to 9, when history teaching was compulsory): the Victorians, Florence Nightingale, the Crimean War, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, the Ancient Greeks, the Ancient Egyptians, the Tudors, the Second World War, the development of Britain post 1950, the medieval period (booooooring), the Tudors (again), the slave trade, the industrial revolution and the causes of the first world war. Of course, I remember very few of the actual details involved, but I remember these topics above all others I was taught in school because the teachers made the subjects engaging and because I wanted to know more.
Having just gained a very good degree in History, I could not tell you when the Magna Carter was signed. Nor could I tell you the date of the collapse of the Roman Empire, or anything in particular about the Ancient Egyptians. I cannot keep up with The White Queen on TV because I last studied the Wars of the Roses when I was nine.
But I don’t honestly think that’s the point. I think that the point is that the history I was taught in school swept me away on a tidal wave of past worlds and made me want to know more. Having looked at the proposed curriculum for kids in school these days, I could not honestly say that the same would be true were I in their shoes.