Sunday, October 23, 2005


England Expects

Last week was the 200th year anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, which was celebrated with a flotilla of international ships including French and Spanish, a 1000 beacons were lit around Britain and a parade amongst various other ceremonies. All this is, I believe, is tremendous in that it brings history alive and commemorates an important event, which if things had gone the other way could have meant an invasion of Britain.

I often see that some people within Britain or outside believe that as a country we dwell too much on the past. Personally I don’t think this is the case at all. It’s true that some people, particularly politicians, might have a slightly misplaced and arrogant pride in British history and have a tendency to cling to this whilst being suspicion of change. Yet I find most Britons know very little about the history of their country beyond a few sketchy outlines. Also it is perfectly possible to have pride, good knowledge and be able to celebrate the past as well as embracing modernity.

Why is history important? Although few, if any, events are identical, history can give us warnings from the past. If we do not learn from our mistakes then we are doomed to repeat them. Also history can be fascinating. It tells us how we got to where we are now. It can give us a perspective on current issues. For example – most of us are related to people who came across through waves of invasion and immigration. It should also give us a sense of shared identity. If you are born or if you move to a country then its history is part of its rich culture.

I realise that schools are often criticised for various ills of society but I am concerned about the way some subjects including history seem to be taught today. In my secondary school, despite having a good teacher, my history lessons from the age of 11 to 16 seems somewhat patchy to say the least. I left school 17 years ago but I fear things have become worse. Now I love history as it’s full of great stories but like any subject it can be taught in a leaden way depending on what topics are picked, the methods of teaching and the teacher itself. Unfortunately the curriculum picks dull areas of history.

For instance I would say the highlights of English history could be William the Conqueror (Battle of Hastings), Richard I (The Crusades), John I (Magna Carta), Edward III (Hundred Years War), Richard III (Battle of Bosworth Field), Henry V (Battle of Agincourt), Henry VIII (Battle of Flodden), Elizabeth I (Defeat of the Spanish Armada), Charles I (Civil War) , George III (War of American Independence & Napoleonic Wars) Victoria I (Crimean War) as well as World War I and World War II. Now this is mainly Kings and Queens, battles and wars from 1066 onwards. However these are the leaders and events which have dramatic shifted the history of this country.

Some of the above is covered by history in schools but I’m also sure that a lot of this isn’t. With so little time – how can the curriculum possibly cope by squeezing so much history into 3-5 years? Well the problem is that it seems to have plenty of room for subjects like the feudal system, social reform, the Corn Laws, education improvements, public health, industrial revolution etc. Now this might seem outrageously dismissive – but that stuff might be worthy but it’s BORING! It’s hard enough to get kids to read books let alone history books but going on about the Corn Laws will never compete with the Battle of Trafalgar and Waterloo.

I remember in the first year we were doing dinosaurs. I meant dinosaurs are interesting (especially for kids) but wouldn’t that be better served if it was taught in science (another fascinated subject ruined by dull teaching). The waves of invasions by the Romans, Vikings, and Saxons etc can be rattled through as a primer to 1066. I believe English kids should have good basic knowledge of 1066 to 1945 within their first three years at Secondary school and those who choose to continue with History should be able to go more in depth in certain areas. Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland kids could have the same but with more emphasis on their history.

Critics of this believe it’s just about learning dates by rote. Yet not knowing dates is like trying to find somewhere but never using a map or compass. History is about who, what, when, where and why. Critics would complain it’s too aggressive or nationalistic – but it’s about telling real events and making it interesting and these include the ups and downs along the way. This should include more shameful chapters like slavery. It’s amazing how popular kids books like Horrible Histories and TV programs like Simon Schama’s History of Britain is more interesting than things being taught in school. Again critics would complain that it’s too English or British-centric – and yet the history of Britain is often about our struggles with other countries.

One of the most recent near catastrophic events still in living memory is World War II. However, to my knowledge, the unfolding events of this war aren’t being taught in schools today. I remember we were taught about the events leading up to the war but not the war itself. Finally there is too much emphasis put on empathy – it is all very good and well if kids are imaging what it is like being in a World War I trench – but if they don’t know who’s fighting whom, when, where and why – it’s all seems very disjointed and pointless.

Unfortunately I fear that most people of my age and younger have been turned off history at an early age because they were given DULL history topics to begin with which has been quickly forgotten and yet they don’t know about the supposedly famous events in British history. England should expect better…

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