Let's give Harold one in the eye

Robert Winder says it is time to put the telling of traditional British history behind us
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The Independent Online
It hasn't been a good week for education. No one seems to know what to make of the booming GCSE results, except to note that the examining boards are handing out more A grades than they used to. And there isn't really a way to make the dispiriting results of the new assessment of 11-year-olds (which revealed a shaming rump of almost-teenagers unable to read or add) seem pretty, which is why people are left arguing that the tests were a bad idea in the first place. And now comes a Gallup survey, which purports to prove that young people are illiterate airheads who don't even know "basic" facts such as the date of the Battle of Hastings.

Quite how this conclusion was reached is a mystery. As it happens, the poll indicated that 82 per cent of people knew the answer, an impressive figure. If you take out serial murderers, child abusers and juvenile delinquents, all of whom have other things on their minds, it is practically the whole population. But inevitably the findings are provoking a discussion about what exactly we should know as paid-up members of society.

It is a nice irony that the argument should revolve around 1066 and all that. When Sellars and Yeatman constructed their mischievous pastiche of old-fashioned, jingoistic history-teaching they were out to mock. Can it really be that we are now eager to promote the very thing they parodied - the routine inculcation of a dogged set of names and dates, with clear Made-in-Britain tags for the short-sighted?

The story of the nation, the basic operating software of citizenship in the old days, was essentially the story of British pluck. Boadicea, Alfred the Cake, King Harold, Drake's Drum, Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and Mrs Thatcher were all redoubtable freedom-lovers refusing to kowtow to barbarous foreign hordes - except for Harold, who took one in the eye from the French and gave birth to the cult of the valiant loser. Anyone who objects to this is swiftly presented as unpatriotic. And it is indeed problematic when the consensus about what we need to know breaks down: it means there is no common material for people to chew over.

In former times, it was compulsory to know Latin, Greek and the Bible, an extremely narrow curriculum that somehow managed to give students a skeleton key into Western art, music, literature and political theory. The 20th century has, quite properly, rebelled against the limitations of a small and lordly canon of knowledge and ideas, but at some cost. These days the mass media provide the consensus. America, this summer, has been united not by anything it learned in school, but by a triumph over an alien blitzkrieg (Independence Day) and Michael Johnson winning the 200 metres.

But is this the national story we truly wish to tell ourselves these days? Shouldn't these bravehearts be supplanted, or at least supplemented, by non-warrior heroes such as Wilberforce, Pankhurst, Stephenson and Baird, the people who gave us the abolition of slavery, women's emancipation, trains and televisions?

Why, in any case, should we - a mercantile, exploring, seafaring nation that once ruled the waves - even bother to emphasise the domestic aspects of our island story. The trouble is, a serious list of things a modern Brit should bump into at school would swiftly become unwieldy.

It would have to include Stalin, Hitler and the Holocaust, women's liberation, Einstein, the industrial revolution, Shakespeare, Mozart, Homer, Greece 'n' Rome, the rise and rise of sport, the history of television, and the Irish potato famine. And then, after our milk and bun, we'd have to do Luther, Sophocles, the European discovery of America, Freud, the First World War, the history of oil, Darwin and the slave trade. It's a lot to learn, sure - perhaps it could all be inscribed onto our super-dooper ID cards, with our score listed at the top of the info-page.

Maybe that's impractical. In truth, it is not even desirable. We need foxes, who know many things and are good at pub quizzes; but we also need hedgehogs, who know only one big thing. What is undoubtedly true - the reason why those test results for 11-year-olds are so dismaying - is that without the so-called three r's - reading, riting and rithmetic - we have access to none of these.

Perhaps the true lesson of history is that it is best forgotten anyway. It might not be a coincidence that the surge of enthusiasm for traditional history teaching comes at a time of vexed national pride, at a time when we no longer win gold medals. Perhaps it is true what mother always said, that what we don't know can't hurt us. History after all is the nightmare from which we are trying to awaken - maybe it is time to try aversion therapy. It is possible to know the dates of all the key battles and still forget your child's birthday.

The great argument for learning history, however distorted and glancing our view of it, is that we learn from it. What if it is time to revise this notion altogether? On the radio yesterday morning, Trevor McDonald could be heard smoothly reading CLR James's view from beyond the boundary, to the effect that the ideal education was Greek: sport and poetry with some literary cricketism thrown in. There are not many recorded instances of people learning from the past. Indeed it is possible that the less we know about the past, the less likely we are to repeat it. History recurs, to cruel and dismal effect, in Ireland, in Bosnia, in Kashmir. The old yokes are the best ones.