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Teaching History: We're All Whigs Now

Thomas Babington Macaulay, historian and Whig politicianIn a report released today, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on History and Archives says that ‘many schools regard history as too tough for their weaker students and allow them to drop it after two years at secondary school’. I imagine that the same applies to chemistry, physics and geography. They’re tough subjects, too. The difference is that they don’t carry the burden – of creating good citizens – that the subject of history has, uniquely, come to bear.

The Conservative MP and historian Chris Skidmore, vice-chairman of the committee, rather gives the game away when says that ‘his conversations with teachers had reflected an appetite for teaching citizenship through a focus on British history, the development of democracy and "our hard-won freedoms".’ We are back with the Whigs, it seems. Skidmore wants to make history compulsory to 16, regardless of whether a child is disposed to it, but the report notes that this would require an extra 10,000 history teachers. Good luck with that. But why not make chemistry compulsory to 16; it is fundamental to an understanding of life on earth, though I suspect it is harder to marry chemistry with the troubling – and deeply un-British idea – of ‘citizenship’.

There is but one reason to teach history. As Chris Wickham, the Chichele Professor of History at Oxord University points out: ‘It is simply very interesting.’

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today

From The Archive

History in the Classroom

As the debate rages about how history should be taught in state schools David Cannadine discusses his recent research project.

Our Island Stories

Penelope J. Corfield proposes a new and inclusive long-span history course – the Peopling of Britain – to stimulate a renewed interest in the subject among the nation’s secondary school students.