History students ignorant of past

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The Independent Online
TOO MANY A-level history students arrive at university with almost no knowledge of the subject before the 20th century, historians said yesterday.

A survey by the magazine History Today reveals that university history departments are alarmed by the lack of general historical background. "They are concerned that the ever-increasing fascination with 20th-century dictators and the Holocaust at A-level leaves new undergraduates unprepared for broader historical study," the magazine says. Reading University complained that "most seem to have studied the Third Reich several times over".

Departments also complain of a decline in students' basic literacy and essay writing skills.

The survey comes after protests last week that two of the three A-level exam boards have decided to drop Anglo-Saxon history from their syllabuses from September next year, because of a lack of demand from candidates. The new findings suggest that the Tudors and Stuarts are also losing their popularity.

More than half of the 40 university departments polled by the magazine were worried that sixth-formers know less about history than did their predecessors. "Tutors are expressing frustration that students tend to be unwilling to broaden their knowledge outside the modern and contemporary, preferring to play safe. with what is familiar rather than expand into uncharted areas," History Today says.

A Nottingham Trent University spokesman said "intellectual inertia" has been imposed on students' minds as to which periods are and are not important historically. "For some years," says the magazine, "there has been a rise in the popularity of mid-20th- century history at A-level, with fewer students covering early modern history."

Universities have reacted by introducing courses to broaden their students' outlook, including medieval history, film and history, social history and women's history. Other institutions are trying other ways of bridging the gap in students' knowledge. Luton provides map books for first years, since knowledge of European geography is so poor and Portsmouth hands out an easy-to-follow guide to the early modern period. Dons also complain of a deterioration in spelling and grammar.

Even Cambridge says it "cannot now presume real language skills ... which limits our ability to put on special subjects in a foreign language".

History is still a popular option at university but the introduction of tuition fees has led to a decline in the number of mature student applicants and dons express fears for the future. "The downgrading of history at primary school level in favour of maths, literacy and science and the option for children to give up history at the age of 14 means that the pool of potential historians may slowly dwindle."