My Vision for History in Schools


In these economically and politically tricky times we need history's long look more than ever, says historian and government adviser Simon Schama, as he sets out six of the key events no child should miss out on


Whatever else gets cut in this time of nicks and scrapes, incisions and mutilations, the cord of our national memory had better not be among the casualties. For even during the toughest trials it's our history that binds us together as a distinctive community in an otherwise generically globalised culture. Mother Teresa and Lady Gaga are multinationals; Oliver Cromwell and Margaret Thatcher are peculiarly ours. In a headphone world where we get to privatise our brains, it's history that logs us on to Our Space.


This is not to say history is a placebo for our many arguments and ills; a stroll down memory lane to escape the headaches of the present. It's exactly because history is, by definition, a bone of contention (the Greek word historia meant, and was used from the very beginning by Herodotus as, "inquiry") that the arguments it generates resist national self-congratulation. So that inquiry is not the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us, but it is, indispensably, an understanding of the identity of us. The endurance of British history's rich and rowdy discord is, in fact, the antidote to civic complacency, the condition of the irreverent freedom that's our special boast. (Try the American version and you will know what I mean about our brand of salutary disrespect.) The founding masterpiece of European history, Thucydides's Peloponnesian Wars, was written by a veteran for whom the discipline was sceptical or not worth the writing: an attack on Athenian hubris precisely to demonstrate what was, and what was not, worth fighting for in defence of the democratic polis.


So it is exactly at a time when we are being asked to make painful, even invidious, distinctions between the inessential and the indispensable in our public institutions: that we need history's long look at our national makeup. This is not an insular proposal. The way Britain has conducted itself in the world beyond the shores of Albion, for good as well as ill, is integral to the self-examining story. How European are we; how Americanised in our habits and strategies? Why does Hong Kong pretty much run the world? There is no hope of answers to those kinds of questions without history's help.


Who is it that needs history the most? Our children, of course: the generations who will either pass on the memory of our disputatious liberty or be not much bovvered about the doings of obscure ancestors, and go back to Facebook for an hour or four. Unless they can be won to history, their imagination will be held hostage in the cage of eternal Now: the flickering instant that's gone as soon as it has arrived. They will thus remain, as Cicero warned, permanent children, for ever innocent of whence they have come and correspondingly unconcerned or, worse, fatalistic about where they might end up.


The seeding of amnesia is the undoing of citizenship. To the vulgar utilitarian demand, "Yes, all very nice, I'm sure, but what use is it?", this much (and more) can be said: inter alia, the scrutiny of evidence and the capacity to decide which version of an event seems most credible; analytical knowledge of the nature of power; an understanding of the way in which some societies acquire wealth while others lose it and others again never attain it; a familiarity with the follies and pity of war; the distinctions between just and unjust conflicts; a clear-eyed vision of the trappings and the aura of charisma, the weird magic that turns sovereignty into majesty; the still more peculiar surrender to authority grounded in revelation, be that a sacred book or a constitution invoked as if it too were supernaturally ordained and hence unavailable to contested interpretation.


Tell a classroom of 12-year-olds the story of the British (for they took place across our nations) civil wars of the 17th century and all those matters will catch fire in their minds. Explain how it came to be that in the 18th century Britain, a newly but bloodily united kingdom, came somehow to lose most of America but acquire an Indian empire, to engross a fortune on the backs of slaves but then lead the world in the abolition of the trade in humans; explain all that, and a classroom of pupils whose grandparents may have been born in Mumbai or Kingston will grasp what it means to be British today, just as easily as a girl whose grandparents hail from Exeter or Aberdeen.


But the history of how we came to execute our king, or dominate south Asia, is exactly the history that, in practice, gets short shrift from the present national curriculum. The same is true of vast tracts of British history most of the medieval centuries, in which the relationship between church and state, a topic of compelling contemporary significance seldom get class time. A comprehensive school teacher I talked to at one of the Prince of Wales's Summer Institutes told me that he was eager to teach his pupils medieval history and the curriculum offered him space to do just that. He made plans to have his class look at pipe rolls in the county archive with their laconically eloquent accountings of villages decimated by the black death; visit churches and cathedrals to understand what a truly Christian England felt like and take all those experiences back into the classroom. But once he realised or was made to realise how much more work it would take both for his pupils and himself to satisfy the time-lords of assessment, "I collapsed back on Hitler and the Henries."


My own anecdotal evidence suggests that right across the secondary school system our children are being short-changed of the patrimony of their story, which is to say the lineaments of the whole story, for there can be no true history that refuses to span the arc, no coherence without chronology. A pedagogy that denies that completeness to children fatally misunderstands the psychology of their receptiveness, patronises their capacity for wanting the epic of long time; the hunger for plenitude. Everything we know about their reading habits from Harry Potter to The Amber Spyglass and Lord of the Rings suggests exactly the opposite. But they are fiction, you howl? Well, make history so often more astounding than fiction just as gripping; reinvent the art and science of storytelling in the classroom and you will hook your students just as tightly. It is, after all, the glory of our historical tradition again, a legacy from antiquity that storytelling is not the alternative to debate but its necessary condition.


I don't underestimate the difficulty, especially with a looming rise in classroom numbers as the mini baby-boom of the 2000s comes to school, of reinstating a more complete history; especially one that will not neglect Europe and the non-western world. And it can't be a good idea to treat school age as if it ran on parallel tracks to chronology, so that the eight-year-olds automatically get Boudicca. Better, perhaps, to start the reconnections between then and now in primary school with the history closest to the children: families, the local town and country, while not stinting their natural fascination with those who live their lives on the world stage. All of which makes added time for history in the curriculum the precondition of its rescue from disconnection.


Academies where history is discouraged, or even ruled out, in favour of more exam-friendly utilitarian options must be persuaded to teach it, and for more than a trivial hour a week. Drive-by history is no history at all. Ideally, no pupils should be able to abandon the subject at 14.


To the retort that teachers have enough on their hands in the state system getting their students to be literate and numerate, I would respond that in a pluralist Britain of many cultures, vocational skills are the necessary but insufficient conditions of modern civility. Kids need to know they belong to a history that's bigger, broader, more inclusive than the subject they imagine to be the saga of remote grandees alien to their traditions and irrelevant to their present. A truly capacious British history will not be the feeder of identity politics but its dissolvent. In the last resort, all serious history is about entering the lives of others, separated by place and time. It is the greatest, least sentimental, least politically correct tutor of tolerance.


None of this is to underestimate the heroic job being done by history teachers in primary and secondary schools throughout the country, with brutally constrained resources of time and materials. Nor is it to turn a deaf ear to their own concerns. As two successive Historical Association surveys in 2009 and this year make dramatically clear (they are available online at along with an excellent podcast debate about history in schools chaired by Sir David Cannadine), my concerns are but an echo of theirs. "My subject is disappearing," writes one anguished teacher in the 2009 report, in a spirit of lament rather than recrimination. What emerges most startlingly from testimonies of hundreds of teachers is that at a moment fraught with the possibility of social and cultural division, we are, in effect, creating two nations of young Britons: those, on the one hand, who grow up with a sense of our shared memory as a living, urgently present body of knowledge, something that informs their own lives and shapes their sense of community; and those on the other hand who have been encouraged to treat it as little more than ornamental polishing for the elite.


Independent and grammar schools by and large teach the subject for 90 minutes or more a week (albeit often in those chopped-up modules); and their teachers have usually had specialist historical training. But one in three comprehensives and academies teach the subject, if at all, with teachers who have no history themselves beyond GCSE; and with harshly truncated hours. There is absolutely no more guaranteed recipe for boredom than discontinuous subject matter taught as an exercise in "learning" by someone who is passionless about the past. How would you rather spend an hour: "learning about learning", trapped in some sort of indeterminate swamp of histo-geographic-social studies, or listening to and talking about, the murder of Thomas Becket?


If we care about this as a country; if we believe, as I do, that one of its cultural glories is that our future absorbs our past not as dead weight but inspiration, then there is much to consider, debate and do. And nothing worthwhile can be done without listening to and learning from those charged with the mission, working on its frontlines up and down the country in all kinds of schools. But in the end, the history community is or ought to be bigger than just its school lessons: it should involve and engage academics who might want to think as deeply about how the subject is taught to 13-year-olds as to undergraduates and PhD students; writers outside the academy who might want to produce new books not just textbooks but for the digital age, integrating the kinds of sources that can be put without straining too many resources, on every student's laptop, or even smartphone; the many devoted curators and custodians of historic sites and museums. And, not least, the reform and rejuvenation of history as a living breathing subject ought to involve parents, who, after all, are themselves, one hopes, the first storytellers their children listened to.


Of course, the first obligation parents will feel towards their children, beyond their safety, is that they be equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to earn their living in a world in which that task gets harder by the day. But caring parents, whatever their means, and wherever they live, surely have another concern too, beyond the exigencies of pounds and pence: that their children come to understand that the value of the house they live in is not measured by square footage, the size of the car or the number of electronic machines whirring and flashing in room after room, but the wealth of its memories, the abundance of its shared stories; for it is from that history that we recognise our membership of a common family. Like all other families, it will row and rage and seldom sing from the same page. But somehow that common memory will make it pause before it tears itself apart and shreds the future to ribbons.


What every child should learn:

1.       Murder in the cathedral: The whole showdown between religious and royal/secular ideas of law and sovereignty embodied in the persons of Thomas Becket and Henry II. This could hardly be more relevant in our contemporary world, where secular law and authority are asked to submit to religious law. And a thrilling story, given that Becket goes from being the king's right-hand man to his indefatigable opponent. What kind of conversion was that? The story of Henry's penitence and the establishment of a martyr legend is just as riveting.

2.       The black Death, and the peasants revolt in the reign of Richard II: how did society deal with the arrival of a terrifying pandemic? (Are we any more prepared?) How did the plague change society among rich and poor. Was there any connection between the trauma and a rebellion that took over the capital?

3.       The execution of King Charles I: how did Britain get from a country that revered its monarch to one that cut off his head? How could a total British war fought in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as England happen over religion?! What happened when whole families divided in civil war? What was it like for Britain to be governed by a non-royal who turned quasi-dictator? Why did the official campaign to abolish Christmas fail? The really big question is why this most thrilling, terrifying epic moment in British history, seldom gets classroom time.

4.       The Indian moment: how was it that a country throwing its weight around the world's oceans got kicked out of most of America but in two generations came to rule an immense part of the subcontinent? Any class would want to know about the cunning-crazed Robert Clive; to look again at Siraj ud Daula and the tragic ruin that Warren Hastings became, not to mention stories of Brits who defied the race and culture barrier by wearing Indian dress, speaking Indian languages; illicitly marrying Indian princesses.

5.       The Irish wars: William Gladstone, Charles Parnell and the Irish wars the subject that never goes away! Two heroic and, in their own ways, tragic figures. Could it ever have worked out peacefully?

6.       The opium wars and China: Victorian Britain using the royal navy to protect hard drug trafficking? True!


Simon Schama

The Guardian, Tuesday 9 November 2010