Mr Chips With Everything?

Patrick Brindle debates over the teaching of history in schools in the twentieth century

According to Dr Nicholas Tate, Chief Executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 'the transmission of an established account of the past' has ceased to be a primary purpose of school history lessons. To Dr Tate this is something to be lamented, and over recent months he has used his position to reintroduce issues of history teaching to the arena of public debate. Summarised briefly, Tate wishes to engage education more explicitly with the enterprise of cultural reproduction. Looking back to the first thirty years of this century, he identities history textbooks as being primarily involved in communicating a unified vision of national identity. Indeed, Tate sees much to admire in these pre-war school- books, particularly their concern with strong narrative and their taken-for-granted affinity towards a mainstream national heritage based upon a canon of recurring stories about figures and events from the past – stories like 'Alfred and the Cakes'.

This picture of educational and historical consensus, however, becomes somewhat blurred when we move beyond the pre-war textbooks to analyse the pre-war classroom itself. My own research into history teaching reveals the early years of this century to be marked not by harmony but by conflict. Just as it is today, school history was a contested area. Oral testimony from retired elementary schoolteachers and from ex-pupils, alongside an examination of the teaching press and History (the journal of the Historical Association), reveals the educational community to be deeply divided over the goals and methods of history teaching, and shows the practice of actually teaching the subject in the classroom to be marked as much by- improvisation and ignorance as by erudition and systematic instruction. Furthermore, the textbooks which have so impressed Dr Tate had come under sustained assault from writers and teachers after the First World War.

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