Joan Bakewell: History repeats itself, when you don't know any

While religious instruction comes within the compulsory part of the curriculum, history is optional
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The Independent Online

There is a major campaign under way to make us realise that "history matters". It's been launched by English Heritage, The National Trust and the Historical Association, who are coming together to spread the word, with glossy receptions and rousing speeches by Stephen Fry and David Starkey. We're all encouraged to join in, filling out colourful posters of castles, mills and henges to say why we care. I'm all for this. There are many good reasons why a sense of history might improve the nature of today's politics and international affairs. I'll come to them in a moment. But first the paradox lurking within all the fuss.

In his poem on the German invasion of Poland. September 1, 1939, W H Auden famously wrote that "Those to whom evil is done /Do evil in return". The lines were hailed as prophetic, quoted much at the time, and though Auden himself later dismissed the poem as "infected with an incurable dishonesty" and dropped it from later editions of his poems, its popularity persisted. It was quoted after 11 September, posted on websites, broadcast on National Public Radio, and cropped up in chatrooms. Even now it may be quoted apropos the anniversary of 7 July bombing.

But I want to draw attention to the poem's preceding two lines. Auden wrote: "I and the public know/ What all school children learn/ Those to whom evil is done..." Well no, they don't - "all school children" don't learn any more. History is no longer a compulsory subject in our schools. While religious instruction comes within the compulsory part of the curriculum, history is now optional. Consequently at the age of 14 or so, thousands of schoolchildren drop it from their overcrowded school timetables.

So as Deitrich sang, pulling as poignantly as Auden at the heart strings, "when will they ever learn?" The answer is, they won't, and the outlook for any wise and informed assessment of how this country came to be what it is, of its role in the world, its place in the development of ideas and freedoms will be entirely neglected.

The dangers of ignorance are on every hand. Who can take a measured view of the Israeli conflict without at least a cursory knowledge of The Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate and the Arab/Israeli wars of 1967, 73 and 82. How can Tony Blair be expected to make wise judgements in the Middle East when he is clearly not familiar with the Sykes Picot agreement of 1916, by which France and England secretly agreed a carve up of Iraq, Syria, and the Lebanon between them. History is the shadow behind every news headline, every government initiative, every impulse to rebellion and subversion. We neglect it at our peril.

Of course, we don't neglect it at all. Instead we convert it into entertainment. Braveheart, despite, I'm told, numerous historical gaffes, was a hugely popular movie. It was the stuff of legend and deserves its popularity as such. Twenty five years ago the television drama series Roots, which told the story of Kunta Kinte, a West African enslaved in America, was seen by some 130 million viewers, even emptying the casinos of Las Vegas when it was being transmitted. It was "a history lesson they'd never been taught", declared its star LeVar Burton.

On BBC4 recently there was a slight, but delightful telling of Beau Brummel's involvement with the Prince Regent and how he invented men's fashions, most particularly the suit. More seriously, Ken Loach's winner of the Palme D'Or at Cannes, The Wind that shakes the Barley, was denounced as historically biased. Several of its critics had neither seen the film, nor knew their Irish history.

It's a tired axiom that history is written by the winners. That's not true any longer. With no single agreed narrative, the field is open to innumerable different versions. On television, Terry Jones celebrates the Barbarians and dismisses the Romans; Adam Hart Davis proclaims the numerous things the Romans did for us. History is everywhere on the airwaves. Historians Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, Tristram Hunt and Bethany Hughes offer their challenging interpretations of history's own cause and effects.

But history is too important to be left to television. Anniversaries such as the battle of the Somme, and next year the abolition of slavery, are all well and good, celebrated with the judicious use of archive, and sometimes injudicious use of dramatic recreation. They are fine viewing, loaded with style and images, appealing to the heart rather than the head. But they are landmark events dotted across the years rather than a sustained understanding that the study of history promotes.

History is the very essence of our thoughts about who we are, setting the parameters of national identity by telling where we came for. All our current crises - issues of asylum seekers, overcrowded prisons, wayward children, national sovereignty, European unity - become more tractable when we examine their history. Ask first how did this situation come about, what dynamics of human behaviour have brought us here, and the way forward becomes at once more complex but also more open to rational solutions.

History teaches a method of thinking , a way of looking at our world and each other that adds immeasurable to our individual tolerance and understanding. Or that's what it's supposed to teach. It once did. So please, miss, can we have our history lessons back?

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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