Justin Champion: Through the looking glass

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One of the memorable moments of my schooldays was learning how Captain Robert Jenkins held up his severed ear in the House of Commons in 1738 to prove Spanish atrocities against British liberties. The War of Jenkins' Ear showed us schoolboys how the British state defended even the most insignificant sailor in far-flung parts of the world. How wrong was that?

It is easy, after Niall Ferguson's recent call for reform of school history at the Hay Festival, to imagine that this war might be a key moment in a narrative history celebrating the might of British seafaring power. What I did not know (nor was I taught), then, was that it was fought in the Caribbean to defend the asiento or British commercial rights for unlimited trade in slaves to the Spanish Americas. All the same, my 12-year-old imagination was piqued – piracy, galleons, oppressive continentals, injustice and danger were the proper stuff of history.

Academic historians have become increasingly agitated by the question of how relevant history is to the broader world. Why does history matter? What is its impact? But we have paid less attention to the history teaching in schools – at primary, GCSE or A-level.

So step up Niall Ferguson. Having established that money rules the world, he now pronounces on the everyday experience of schoolchildren and the competence of dedicated schoolteachers: "all junk" – too much Martin Luther King and not enough Martin Luther. GCSE history should be compulsory and, he asserts, should deliver a mandatory chronological "big story" of the rise of the West. The issues at stake are more than a question of historical content and style of delivery. Opportunistic it may be, but the intervention raises serious points.

Politicians of all hues have sought to use history teaching as an instrument of civic instruction. Gordon Brown wanted to explore the "golden thread" of liberty from the Magna Carta to the Great Reform Act. David Cameron demands the invention of a "spine of narrative history" connecting Henry VIII and Hitler. No doubt, ministers see opportunity in the public thirst for history.

Children, whether role-playing an ancient Egyptian or experiencing the terror of the Gunpowder Plot, enjoy encountering the past – they learn to recognise difference, to empathise with other values, to form moral judgements. But they prefer pirates and crusaders to Enclosure Acts and franchise reform. Smugglers, highwaymen and Robin Hood will always appeal more than the expansion of empire and the rise of the West. So, goes Ferguson's complaint, historical curiosity is currently unanchored from a big story, and making shared historical stories will produce a better Britain.

Doing history at five, 15, 25 or 50 is a complex cultural activity – good historians at any of these ages can recall dates and chronicle events as well as exercise a critical understanding. Good historians use their imaginations and creativity as much as their erudition: inquisitiveness about what happened, and about why and how, drive people to spend hours in the library. So, it's not so much the content, as the encounter with the past, that's important.

History should aim to entrance and stimulate. Doing history is a powerful tool of identity: it can enshrine human achievement and sacrifice, expose oppression, and explain the origins of prejudice. So the teaching of history should cultivate the skills for individuals to explore the past rather than indoctrinate children to learn by rote a predictable triumphalist story of the great and good.

In any case, the call for a longer-view history has been addressed in GCSEs such as those dealing with the history of medicine. They do so within an extended chronological framework. Taking part in a Prince's Teaching Institute event where teachers explored ways of persuading students to think about the rise of modern medical knowledge, I was struck by the passion for critical inquiry on show. The sessions were inspiring because they were ambitious for their students – whether thinking why Galenist values persisted into the early modern world, or debating the role of hygiene theory in 19th-century Europe. Young minds are more open to debate than adults assume: these critical, combustible and imaginative values are the ones we need to nurture.

The assumptions underlying Ferguson's prescriptions are deeply traditional and unimaginative: the resort to narrative is predictable and safe. There are more pressing issues with the way that A-level students in particular are subjected to mechanical forms of assessment. Any display of imaginative insight outside the established criteria is discouraged because it will not attract marks.

One result is that students have been trained to follow rules, to find ways to hit the assessment criteria, rather than to think critically. Teachers are as frustrated by this as much as pupils are bored. It takes time to recultivate these skills and ambitions – a generation of young historians force-fed a chronicle of imperial achievement will do little to address these issues.

Professor Champion is head of the history department at Royal Holloway, University of London