Saturday, 2 March 2013

Memorable Lessons in History: Old and New Ideas in School Curricula

The recent debate over the teaching of history in schools has set me thinking about the lessons that actually inspired me. I didn't have to think for long.

The first was not a formal part of the school curriculum at all, but rather an excursion for local children organised by the local museum and learned society in Jersey in the summer of (I think) 1975. Dubbed "A Day with the Dolmens," it took in eight of the island's Neolithic burial sites. Twenty years later, I published Neolithic Communities of the Channel Islands, an academic monograph featuring all of those sites, and many more. Thirty-seven years later, I published Undreamed Shores, a novel which features four of the eight sites I saw that day. Inspiration enough for a lifetime of research, teaching and publication from just one day of teaching.

The second came in 1976, when I was eleven. It was a more conventional school-based project. We were given photocopies of an 18th Century map of the area surrounding the school, and sent out into the landscape in small groups, to explore it through the eyes of our seven or eight-times-great-grandparents. It was the first time I had worked from a primary source, and it quickly became as natural to me as spreading butter on bread.

                                      Part of the Richmond Map of Jersey, 1795.

It helped, of course, that I was already fascinated by history, an engagement that came largely from fiction. It helped, also, that my parents, though they had little specific interest in history themselves (the dry curricula of their schooldays having bored them rigid) encouraged me to take an interest in all aspects of the world around me, and regularly took me to places of interest, both at home and on holiday. Even with these advantages, however, I fear that the curriculum proposed by Michael Gove will leave little room for the next generation to be inspired as I was.

The proposed curriculum is to be "chronologically based" (ensuring, as one commentator has said, that everyone will leave school with a seven-year-old understanding of the Saxons, a 10-year-old understanding of the Middle Ages and a 14-year-old understanding of the Industrial Revolution), and is to focus on a single, clear "narrative of British progress," and on the "heroes and heroines of the past."

The inspiration for all of this lies in the work of two men, both of them contemporaries of my five-times-great-grandparents. The first is Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose five-volume History of Britain (1848-1875) is the defining work of the "Whig view of history," which has stood largely discredited throughout the 20th Century. The second is Thomas Carlyle, whose book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic (1841) inspired several generations of colonial administrators, but makes pretty uncomfortable reading for most of us in 2013.

                                   Thomas Babington Macauley (1800-1859).

                                            Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881).

I am not suggesting that the work of either man should be neglected or dismissed, any more than I would wish to displace the Diplodocus from the great hall of the Natural History Museum, but I would suggest that these works can no more stand as the cornerstones of history in the 21st Century than the dinosaurs can be seen as offering a way forward for the evolution of life on Earth. Surely the work of 20th and 21st Century historians (and not only British historians, or historians of Britain) must count for something?

There should be scope for some flexibility in the curriculum, so that teachers can be inspired to address key themes in relation to those periods they know most about, and scope, also, for teachers to make use of the historical resources provided by the local context. Above all, there must be scope for inspiration that goes beyond the Gradgrindian emphasis on facts that bored my parents throughout their time at school.

These are among the reasons I have signed the petition (http://epetitions/ against Michael Gove's plans, and would encourage others to do likewise.

Mark Patton's novel, Undreamed Shores, is published by Crooked Cat Publications, and is available from and

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