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

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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

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