Susie Mesure: Never has so little history been known by so few...

As events commemorating the Battle of Britain reach their climax, a grasp of the facts would be a worthy tribute to all veterans

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:45

If there was ever a date on which to reproach ourselves, it is Tuesday week: 7 September will mark 70 years since the Luftwaffe first switched its attention from bombing our airfields to the streets of London. It stands out among the many Battle of Britain landmarks being remembered this year, because it left ordinary citizens with nowhere to escape from the German bombs that began falling on the capital, night after relentless night, for the next nine months, killing 20,000 and shattering 1.5 million homes.

It will be suitably commemorated with a service at St Paul's Cathedral, itself a survivor of the Blitz, for all who played the biggest part in defending the nation, and by inference, the western world, from the tyranny of Nazi Germany. Or at least, for as many as can fit into that great, contemplative space, some 2,300 in all, with my grandpa, Wing Commander John Tipton, among them.

Unlike many others, however, my sense of guilt doesn't stem from not having served my country, or not knowing what it is like to live through a world war or even its aftermath. No, my feelings of inadequacy will come from the embarrassingly sketchy knowledge I have of what did indeed go on over London's skies that first terrible night, and the many, many more that followed. For I suffer from the guilt of ignorance, an affliction that plagues not only my contemporaries but the vast majority of all those spat out by the education system since me. And I speak as a so-called history graduate with a decent enough degree.

I am, however, the product of a liberal teaching establishment that ran a mile from inculcating any sense of national pride in its students, for fear of being accused of banging the imperial drum. Ordinarily I wouldn't mind that, being of a similarly liberal disposition. On this occasion, however, I would be wrong. As are all those responsible for my lack of knowledge. I share in the blame; given the choice at university, I opted for the glamour of the discovery of the New World, and the creation of an entirely new nation, the United States, rather than dwell on the hegemony of the old. But before that, when the Government decreed what knowledge I needed to reach GCSE and beyond, a healthy dose of British history wouldn't have gone amiss. And what better chapter than our finest hour?

I am not the only one who was short-changed in the history department. David Cameron underlined his own failings last month when he called us the "junior partner" in 1940 in the fight against Germany, although America did not even join the war until nearly 1942. Contrast that with Winston Churchill's encyclopaedic historical and geopolitical knowledge, which historians today still credit for the strong leadership that eventually culminated in victory. Similarly, one of the many criticisms of Messrs Blair, Bush et al when it came to Iraq was a lack of historical understanding, not to mention a hyperbolic tendency to compare Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler.

More history at school might even help to stop the vile desecration of war memorials, which has become all too horrifyingly frequent, despite the national disgust at such abuse.

The fault lies in the national curriculum's skills-centred obsession, which decrees it more crucial for a pupil to imagine the privations a soldier faced in the trenches than to name any of the battles he fought. It wants students to emerge able to empathise their way through coursework rather than retain any actual knowledge that might serve them in later life.

The prescription to teach history through a politically correct prism – which emphasises concepts such as slavery and imperialism, instead of dwelling on the feats of those historical figures who make up the narrative that got us to today – has stripped the past of much meaning. Where pupils do pause for breath during the odd isolated era like the Tudors or the Nazis – the "Henrys and Hitler", as those critical of the current syllabus have dubbed the periods – they wind up only knowing about a handful of events.

All this presupposes students even opted to take a GCSE in history, a subject they can drop once they hit 14. Only 4 per cent of GCSEs taken this summer were in history, with only 220,000 candidates. And the picture is barely better at A-level, with the 50,000 entries accounting for 6 per cent of all of the higher-level exams taken. That leaves a lot of pupils who don't even get the dose of Nazism that remains the standard A-level prescription in this country.

What the skills-centric curriculum doesn't explain is why pupils aren't imagining what it felt like to fly a Spitfire on the evening of 7 September 1940, when, caught on the hop by the switch in German tactics, the defending squadrons only finally got into position to attack the Luftwaffe after they had laid waste to large areas of the London docks and the thickly-populated East End. Or why students aren't putting themselves into the coarse uniform of firefighters dousing flames in the shadow of St Paul's. As a consequence, we might have the Few to thank for our independence, but as they inevitably die, to our great sadness, we are left with the very few who will remember what they did.

Even those who think they know about the Battle of Britain would struggle to recall much of Churchill's famous speech that elevated "the Few" to British mythology. Who really knows, for instance, that with his next breath he paid equal tribute to the oft-maligned bomber squadrons who "night after night, month after month... travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power"?

Granted there are times this summer when it seems hard to avoid a Battle of Britain citation. What with commemorations at the battle memorial itself on Dover's white cliffs, a ceremony outside the Cabinet war rooms to mark Churchill's 20 August speech, and next month's St Paul's service, Battle of Britain references are coming thick and fast. Then there are new books such as Andrew Roberts' The Storm of War, or James Holland's The Battle of Britain, not to mention the likes of the Today programme's Evan Davis flying in a Spitfire or Ewan McGregor and his RAF pilot brother, Colin, reliving the experiences of young airmen in a special BBC documentary next month.

Then there are the special memorial services in churches up and down the country, like the one my grandpa, who served in the Pathfinders as a navigator, is organising on 19 September in his home town of Tenby. But not even this blitz will reach those who have little interest – or knowledge – in the first place, notwithstanding the popularist inclusion of McGregor in the television schedule.

Luckily, there is cause for hope, and it comes in the form of Michael Gove's impending review of the curriculum, to be launched this autumn. When it comes to history, the Secretary of State for Education is a traditionalist who wants more facts and fewer concepts, in lessons that make pupils proud of their past. He has signed up none other than Niall Ferguson, the renowned colonial apologist, to help spearhead the overhaul. While the very suggestion that schoolchildren should be proud of their imperial past is enough to send most of teachers into paroxysms of despair, suspicious of our forebears' motives as I am, I applaud any move to teach students more facts before they leave school.

A few basic ones, such as being able actually to name one of the Few, could trigger the passion for history that many develop with age. Witness the explosion of interest in genealogy or the popularity of any show narrated by Simon Schama. Whether Mr Gove's review can do much for the popularity of military history, which holds little appeal for girls in particular, remains to be seen. Perhaps the vogue for all things vintage and the lust for aviation chic this autumn will help.

For now, let us pause and allow ourselves just a little bit of patriotism, rejoicing in that most important of British victories – one fought in the skies over this island, forcing Hitler to abandon plans to invade its shores.Without that defeat, the post-war map of Europe could have looked a good deal different. Would it be stretching it to suggest Germany might like to join our Battle of Britain commemorations too?

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