Thursday, January 05, 2006

Education in England, A Farce in Too Many Acts

An absolutely brilliant article by Max Hastings in the Guardian on the difficulties facing those who want to teach (and learn) about the English in England. TheTitle: This is the country of Drake and Pepys, not Shaka Zulu. The lede: The past 500 years have been dominated by westerners, so there's little point teaching children about other societies. The article:
Most of the coverage given to last week's report from the government's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority focused upon the decline of school language studies. Because I am a historian by background and inclination, my own attention fell upon its remarks about history.

It expresses concern about the overwhelming Nazi focus. It argues that schools "undervalue the overall contribution of black and other minority ethnic peoples to Britain's past, and ... ignore their cultural, scientific and many other achievements". History, says the QCA, plays "an increasingly marginal role" in both primary and secondary schools, because of "a perception that it has only limited relevance to many pupils' future working lives".

On the first of these points - the Hitler obsession - few thinking people will disagree. Even to me, who has written half-a-dozen books about the second world war, it seems quite wrong to allow teenagers to make that period their only encounter with the past. It should not be difficult to broaden the agenda for pupils who want to specialise in modern tyranny. They might, for instance, undertake comparative studies of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, the 20th century's great mass murderers.

Stalin and Mao command less interest than Hitler because no pictures exist of their crimes comparable with movie images of the Holocaust. In an age dominated by visual images, many find it hard to acknowledge any reality unless they see it on screen. There may be a second reason for this relative lack of interest. More than a few academics harbour a visceral reluctance to acknowledge that what was done in the name of communism should be judged by the same standard as the deeds of fascism.

The QCA further urges a need to give more positive attention to the part of minorities in Britain's history. The authority's thinking is easy to understand: to a teenager of West Indian or Muslim background, medieval exchequer practice or 19th century poor law seem remote. Surely we can offer such children knowledge that strikes a chord with their own heritage.

Yet how is it possible to do much of this in a British school without distorting the western experience, which anyone living here is signed up to? Pupils in modern African or Indian schools obviously focus their historical studies on the experience of subject races under foreign rule. But, as a profound sceptic about multiculturalism, I can't see the case for such an agenda, unless the vast majority of British people are to pretend to be something they are not.

It may justly be asserted that - for instance - the Muslim peoples of the Middle East sustained much higher cultural values in the 12th and 13th centuries than the European crusaders they fought; that many Indian peoples possessed more impressive heritages than our own. But the world's development in the past 500 years has been dominated, for good or ill, by what westerners have thought and done. Other societies, again no matter whether for good or ill, have been losers whose power to determine their own destinies, never mind anyone else's, has been small.

History is the story of the dominance, however unjust, of societies that display superior energy, ability, technology and might. If one's own people were victims of western imperialism, it is entirely understandable that one should wish to study history from their viewpoint. But, whatever the crimes of our forefathers, this is the country of Drake, Clive and Kitchener, not of Tipu Sultan, Shaka Zulu or the Mahdi.

Finally, there is the QCA's alarm call about the perceived "lack of relevance" of history to pupils' future working lives. This echoes the notorious remarks of Charles Clarke, when education secretary, dismissing medieval and classical studies. At the weekend, I glanced at some of my old school essays. The questions seem interesting: "Should one think of Henry II as a lawless and arbitrary monarch, or as the founder of an orderly legal and administrative system?"; "Why did Edward I succeed in Wales and fail in Scotland?"; "Can anything be said in favour of James I's foreign policy?"

Even in 1961, one could scarcely argue that familiarity with such themes contributed much to employability. They were no more "relevant" to middle-class white teenagers then than to schoolchildren of West Indian or Muslim origins now. We addressed them, first, because education is properly about learning to think, and objectively to assess evidence; second, so that we knew something about a broad sweep of the history of the society to which, whether by birth or migration, we belonged.

We were developing a sense of British cultural identity, which no amount of social engineering can honestly relocate far from Crecy and Waterloo, Pepys and Newton. The British educational establishment is today defeatist about reconciling new Britons to this. Yet a Washington historian told me recently that he often sees tears in the eyes of young Korean and Mexican Americans when he reads Lincoln's Gettysburg address to them.

Why not likewise here? British education is increasingly perceived as a utilitarian process: all disciplines seeking to rouse the enthusiasm of pupils as if they were fugitive birds, to be tempted out of trees with nuts. The logical outcome of this policy is that children will eventually learn only how to handle computers, change the wheels of cars and submit applications for credit cards.

Even some upmarket schools offer curriculum options that allow pupils to sidestep anything difficult. This is crazy. Real learning cannot be easy, except to a few prodigies. Of course, inner-city schools have little use for Simon de Montfort. But the relentless pruning of aspirations for history teaching even in good secondary schools should dismay us all. Most of the QCA's thinking represents appeasement rather than remedy.
Max Hastings
Tuesday December 27, 2005
The Guardian