TV historian tells schools to teach facts, not trendy ideas

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The cult of the celebrity historian is destructive to the way the subject is approached in schools, the historian and broadcaster Dr David Starkey told a teachers' conference yesterday.

There was too much concentration on "new'' theories of history, rather than a basic knowledge and understanding of the past, Dr Starkey said. Historical knowledge was more important "because D Starkey will go out of fashion as [G R] Elton [a noted academic who focused on the Tudors] will also go out of fashion''.

Dr Starkey, who was speaking to a gathering of history teachers attending a weekend summer school organised by the Prince of Wales in Buxton, Derbyshire, said that the current GCSE syllabus was "content indifferent''. He added: "This seems to me to be absolutely catastrophic."

Examiners had thrown out factual content and perceived study of defined dates in history as "mindless''. While Dr Starkey acknowledged that there could be criticism of too-rigid a concentration on dates, he said: "What happened was we threw out the baby with the bath water.''

He singled out one question set in an AS-level exam this summer as "insane''. Pupils were asked to devote about 17 minutes to "discuss the role of Archbishop Cranmer in the formation of religious policy between 1534 and 1540''. Dr Starkey said: "I'd love to have seen the examiner's notes as to what was the right answer to the question, because there are only two people in the country who can answer that question, and one of them is standing here."

He said the move towards a skills rather than knowledge-based approach to history had tended to produce barrack-room lawyer history. "One of the reasons we have lost the debate is we stopped teaching the history of our nation and of our own culture properly,'' he said. "I'm not calling for 'our island story' and tub-thumping accounts of the British Empire, but we need to have a sense of history's importance and also that it can be fun.''

He told the teachers: "You are not inventing the past. You're the vehicle that communicates it. It is not your job to reflect the latest little bit of academic fashion.''

Teachers should communicate to their pupils a broad depth of understanding of the past by focusing not just on its politics but also its style of dress, the houses people lived in and its landscape.

"That's what you should be communicating,'' he said. "That's why people watch history on TV. It is that entry into a vast world. Academic gains are only a tiny, tiny bit of that.''

Dr Starkey, who is the writer and presenter of a number of popular television historical series, including Elizabeth I and the Six Wives of Henry VIII, was one of three distinguished television historians invited to address the summer school. The others were professors Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson, who said that there was too much concentration on "Hitler and the Henrys'' (the Tudor kings) in history exams, with the result that university applicants failed to have a broad grasp of history.

The weekend school was the third organised by the Prince of Wales. Eighty teachers of English and history were invited to spend the weekend with academics and writers discussing their subjects.

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