Entry from September 15, 2009

A subject that has always been close to my heart is the extent to which the combination of educational fashion and political correctness has cut off a whole generation of young people in America and other Western countries from their own history. In today’s (London) Daily Telegraph, Dominic Sandbrook gives an idea of how far this process is now advanced in Britain when he compares that act of intellectual destruction to what were described at the time as the “Baedeker raids” by the Luftwaffe on British cathedral cities of no strategic importance during World War II. Mr Sandbrook notes that,

where Hitler”s bombers failed, a generation of home-grown political meddlers and “progressive” educationalists have succeeded all too well. For to anyone with even a passing interest in the teaching, reading and writing of our national past, the Historical Association’s massive new survey on history teaching in secondary schools reads like the report of some callous, devastating military barbarism. Across the board, history teaching is in retreat. Seven out of ten teenagers say they enjoy the subject, yet barely three out of 10 study it to GCSE level. Among younger children, the hours set aside for history are being slashed to make way for supposedly vocational subjects. And almost unbelievably, 12-year-olds in half of Tony Blair’s beloved academies study history for just one hour — one! — a week.

The GCSE level is the standard supposed to be attained by 16-year-old “school-leavers” and is not very demanding. If even this minimal qualification eludes 70 per cent of those who obtain any qualification, it means, says Mr Sandbrook, that “an entire generation is leaving school ignorant of what their parents and grandparents once took for granted: the solid, reassuring knowledge of what we all once recognised as our national story.”

Even those who do obtain a history qualification at GCSE are let down if they choose to go on to further study and a more rigorous academic standard. Such a standard used to be required for the A-level exam, taken by 18 year-olds who are candidates for university entry, but even they now learn little history in any serious sense. “A few years ago,” writes Mr Sandbrook, when I was a lecturer at one of northern England”s biggest redbrick universities, I quickly realised that it was a mistake to assume any prior knowledge of British history on the part of our 18-year-old students.” Here he means people who have chosen to specialize in history, which in British universities means that history is just about all they study for their three years in higher education, before taking a degree in it. Most of these young scholars, he writes,

had studied the Nazis and the American civil rights movement in great detail at A-level, but few had heard of, say, David Lloyd George or Stanley Baldwin, or could explain why Britain had won and lost a global empire. They were bright and keen to learn, but had been betrayed by a system that fed them titbits of knowledge, and by a culture of continuous testing that left little time to appreciate the broad sweep of our national past.

Yet, apart from the hint in his mention of the Nazis and the American civil rights movement, Mr Sandbrook doesn’t even get to the worst part, which is that when pupils do study history, particularly British but also all Western history, it is nearly always taught as a history of shame and evil in the past — racism! sexism! homophobia! imperialism! capitalism! — which has only been put to rights (to the extent that it has been put to rights, yet) in the present era. Why would anyone who believes this of the past want to go on with the study it, even if he has had a solid beginning in history? What is it to him but a confirmation of the naive assumption of all children that their own time is enlightened and the past benighted and vicious and with nothing to offer them? Saddest of all, Mr Sandbrook is badly out of date in his ideas of American education:

One reason that America has proved so successful as a melting pot for immigrants, after all, is that its schools give their children a solid and reassuring sense of themselves as Americans, embedded in a shared national past which is studded with patriotic landmarks from the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address. And we have only to look across the Irish Sea, where schools in the Republic patiently trace their national story from Ireland”s first Christian missionaries to its bloody struggle for independence, to see that teaching your national history from start to finish is hardly rocket science. Nor is it necessarily reactionary or old-fashioned or even conservative, as its critics suggest. It is simply common sense.

Actually, this hasn’t been true of America for 40 years. Now, our kids are probably cut off from history even more completely than the British, if not the Irish — except, of course, for that triumphalist history of the civil rights movement.

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