Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: We'd learn more history if we didn't teach it in school

Share

Trust a quango to make a drama out of drivel. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is "increasingly concerned" because British schoolteachers devote most of the history timetable to the Tudors and the Nazis. This is a reflection of British proclivities. The public in this country likes sex and horror. So it likes Henry VIII and Hitler. Nothing wrong with that - except the common-or-garden British vices of bad taste and smallness of soul.

Of course, schoolteachers' versions of these subjects are relatively high-minded. The Tudors are meant to be inspiring, the Nazis cautionary: this is old-style history as moral education. The Tudors nourish myths of Merrie England and national greatness. The Nazis show how nasty foreigners are. They are fodder for an equally out-dated programme of unreflective patriotism.

History in school is usually mythopoeic. The truth about the Tudor period, for instance, is the opposite of what is usually taught. Far from England's age of glory, it was a time of puzzling under-achievement, when England forfeited prestige and failed to emulate Spain or even Portugal in maritime and imperial endeavours. Shakespeare apart, England was a place of lightly gilded savagery by comparison with the brilliance of the culture of other western European realms.

The problem is not that schools teach these topics, but that they teach them badly. The solution, according to the QCA, is to substitute "the history of black Britain" for the Tudors and "post-1945 Germany" for the Nazis. The result would be just as bad: just as narrow-minded, in different ways, and probably just as tendentious.

Ideally, the history curriculum would be global - as it is, increasingly, in the USA, where I now do most of my teaching. But British schools are unamenable to counsels of perfection, which tend to cost a lot of time and money to implement: the British do not value education highly enough to pay for them.

To reform the curriculum sensibly we need to know why history is in the curriculum at all. Not to breed patriotism: the truth about every country's past should make its people ashamed. Not to inculcate "skills" or teach "citizenship": those are petty objectives, best entrusted to duller subjects. Not to foster rational, critical intelligence: any subject can do that, if well taught.

There are only two good reasons for studying history: to enhance life and prepare for death. It enhances life by making you see your surroundings - your streetscapes and landscapes, arts and technologies, neighbours and languages and foods and entertainments - charged with and forged by tradition, which is that part of the past that never ceases to be present. It enlivens the world by making it vividly intelligible.

And history prepares you for death by cultivating your sensibilities, making you morally better: if you can sympathise with people as strange as those in the past, you can embrace cultures other than your own with tolerance.

The best way to teach these things is probably not to teach them formally at all. School history is usually so dreary that it filters out all the fun, and usually so narrow that it frustrates the life-transforming potential of the subject. My fellow-historians will hate me for undermining our prospects of employment, but the truth is that in order to know and love history you do not have to learn it in school. On the contrary, it is better to discover it for yourself, in surroundings from which it is inseparable, and in books better than most teachers can write.

History requires no specialised skills or training - just the love of learning and thinking that any well-taught curriculum should give you, whether it includes history or not. The time schools waste misleading pupils about the Tudors and the Nazis would be better spent sharing rigorous, elusive and highly disciplined traditions of learning, which few people are likely to pick up outside the classroom: my nominations would be tough maths and Latin irregular verbs. But the rule that should govern every intervention in the curriculum is that, ultimately, what is taught does not matter. What matters is that it should be taught well.

If - to adapt a famous phrase - I had been taught as much history as other children, I should know no more history than other adults. The present system arrests historical curiosity and locks the British into their narrow-minded fixations with Nazis and Tudors. The no-history curriculum could produce a nation better-informed about history, wiser in judgement on the past, and fitter to face the future. In the meantime, pupils rely on their only available form of self-defence: inattentiveness to lessons.

The author teaches at Tufts University and Queen Mary, University of London

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne likes to think of himself as the greatest political mind of his generation  

Budget 2015: It takes a lot of hard work to be as lucky as George Osborne

John Rentoul
George Osborne will deliver his emergency Budget on July 8th  

Budget 2015: We gave the Tories a mandate, now we will see what we voted for

Hamish McRae
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test