Our Story, Not History

It is the responsibility of parents and politicians to define and pass on a nation's values and identity, argues Tim Stanley. Historians and teachers of history should be left alone to get on with their work.

The jingoistic cover of an Edwardian annual celebrating the virtues of Britain and its empireCan history be used to teach national identity? Earlier this year the historian and Labour MP Tristram Hunt published a paper – The Importance of Studying the Past – that claimed Britain was producing a generation of children that lacks ‘a collective memory … a sense of connection to place, time and community’. To prove his point Hunt cited a study that found that 84 per cent of undergraduates don’t know who commanded British forces at Waterloo and 89 per cent cannot name a 19th-century prime minister.

Given that the numbers of children studying history at school have remained fairly constant, Hunt hypothesised that the quality of teaching was to blame.He pointed out that pupils tend to be taught periods in isolation from each other and that Nazi Germany dominates too much of the syllabus. There is also an overreliance on studying sources ‘devoid of context, content and meaning’. To restore the civic value of history as a discipline,Hunt concluded, history must get back to telling simple narratives. Most of all, teachers should use history as an opportunity to inculcate ‘British values’.

There is an instinct among politicians to see education as having purpose – churning out employable workers or virtuous citizens. In contrast, academics tend to see intellectual activity as a good thing in itself. Richard J. Evans has argued that the point of history is not to trade in national myths but to get children to think critically about the world around them. For that reason, source-based learning is invaluable as it ‘teaches students not to accept passively every fact and argument they are presented with’.

Evans’ perspective is too pessimistic and too clever. The childish mind requires discipline and clarity, not choice, and that’s why history is most effectively taught with narrative. Hunt’s dissection of the many faults of history teaching is spot on and he is correct that academics do have a responsibility to the society around them. Across the western world, a narcissistic individualism has replaced community. Our lack of a ‘collective memory’ is both the cause and symptom of that disease.

But Hunt oversteps the boundaries of the possible when he calls – as so many politicians have done – for history to be used as a tool to teach British values. For a start, history is too complex a subject to take moral lessons from.What relevant civic values can a schoolchild learn from Henry VIII? It is true that he cultivated the modern nation state and laid the groundwork for a national church. But neither of these matter much any more to a largely secular generation of children who don’t identify with Great Britain, let alone the medieval fantasy of a revived Angevin Empire. Moreover,Henry’s private life offers little instruction in either ethics or good citizenship. The man was a scoundrel.

Henry’s removal from contemporary moral standards poses another problem: national values evolve over time and no two people can agree on what they are. The modern idea of Britain as a land of sexual prudes who love a good queue would have been alien to either the riotous Georgians or the blue-painted Celts of Roman Britain. If history is to be taught well it cannot reduce the past to a reflection of contemporary ideals. That would be dishonest and dull.

The question of what values we are to teach exposes the greatest flaw in Hunt’s thesis. National characteristics are not learnt but inherited. They are reflected in the classroom, but they certainly don’t originate there. Only totalitarian regimes, which govern by the textbook, use history to construct model citizens. Free nations prosper because they have a healthy culture within which individuals instinctively understand what is right or wrong. To quote the philosopher Roger Scruton: ‘I cast my mind back to the way in which Britishness was taught to me by my family, school, church and town. These British values … were seldom mentioned and never taught. Britishness was a state of mind, imparted like the sense of family, as a collective “we”.’

Commonly agreed British values are absent from the classroom because they are absent from wider society. If 21st-century Britain is a lonely, horrible place then that isn’t the fault of history teachers. It is the fault of parents and politicians.

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