Academics bemoan 'execrable' history on television

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The Independent Online

The recent spate of television history series is dismissed as "execrable" by one academic in a survey and accused by others of leading to a decline in the quality of university entrants studying the subject.

Tutors are worried that despite an explosion of interest in the past fuelled by Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson and David Starkey, would-be scholars are choosing history to be entertained rather than as a route to becoming serious historians.

The survey for the magazine History Today questioned more than 50 departments and found that the numbers opting to study the subject had shot up by as much as 40 per cent in a year in some universities. Stephen Constantine at Lancaster University was not impressed. He said: "The colour, action, biography and narrative" in television history shows left undergraduates with the expectation that they would be entertained if they studied it.

He argued that university history tuition should not be "glossy 'edutainment' - reducing students to passive learners".

Karen Sayer at Trinity and All Saints in Leeds said its students expected to be told stories rather than learn how to become historians.

The universities agreed television history programmes had "hugely stimulated the national historical imagination" and awakened students' curiosity in the subject. Daniel Power at Sheffield University said the series had given students "a better sense of the chronological and geographical breadth of history than A-level does".

They also may account for why many students no longer read history books.

Leeds University told the magazine that few A-level students had read "even one history book all the way through".

Lecturers said they had to act as schoolteachers "and sub A-level ones at that" to give their students more of an understanding of the subject.

Not all history departments agreed television had had an impact on their students, though. Dr R B McKean from Stirling University said that most television history was "execrable" but fortunately had no noticeable effect on his students.

Sally Alexander, from Goldsmiths College, London, was altogether more positive, saying television history had "hugely stimulated the national historical imagination" and "widened and provoked students' historical curiosity. Schama and others have brought charisma and passionate argument to bear on the meanings of the past," she added.

The history departments also repeated concerns that too many students were concentrating on studying Hitler or other 20th-century dictators.

Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, has warned that the popularity of Hitler as an option for study has left youngsters bereft of a rounded view of the subject - words that prompted Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, to order a review of the history curriculum.

St Andrews University said the situation was becoming worse, leading to a "worrying narrowness in historical understanding".

Too many students opted for the 20th century and thus studied familiar material "possibly for the third time" when they went to university, the University of Cardiff said.

A-levels and Scottish Highers were criticised for the narrowness of their curriculum - with the result that some historians said they "would rather teach students from scratch" instead of admitting those with a qualification in the subject.

The historians also expressed concern at their students' lack of linguistic and IT skills. "There is universal dismay at the general lack of foreign language skills," the report concluded.

The findings of the historians are likely to add to pressure on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, for changes to the school history curriculum.

Earlier this month, Professor Ferguson, the author of the Channel 4 series, Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World, called on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to put the teaching of the British Empire back at the heart of the history curriculum in secondary schools to help children to interpret events in the modern world.