Saturday, 16 April 2011

Niall Ferguson: Challenging how we teach History

The highlight of this year's ISC Annual Conference was having the opportunity to listen to Niall Ferguson outlining his concerns about the way in which schools are forced to teach History in this country. I have recently started reading his [so far] excellent book, Civilization: The West and The Rest, in which he comments on the problem,
"In schools, too, the grand narrative of Western ascent has fallen out of fashion. Thanks to an educationalists' fad that elevated 'historical skills' above knowledge in the name of 'New History' - combined with the unintended consequences of the curriculum-reform process - too many British children leave school knowing only unconnected fragments of Western history: Henry VIII and Hitler, with a small dose of Martin Luther King, Jr."
Introduction p.18
He develops these ideas further in the Preface to the UK edition,
"Watching my three children grow up, I had the uneasy feeling that they were learning less history than I had learned at their age, not because they had bad teachers but because they had bad history books and even worse examinations.

"For more than thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated 'modules', not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose.

"In The History Boys, the playwright Alan Bennett posed a 'trilemma': should history be taught as a mode of contrarian argumentation, a communion with past Truth and Beauty, or just 'one fucking thing after another'? He was evidently unaware that today's sixth-formers are offered none of the above - at best, they get a handful of 'fucking things' in no particular order."
Preface xix
I am sure that Niall Ferguson's observations ring true with many history teachers, who feel boxed in by examination specifications and bemoan the loss of the opportunity for real historical study, particularly at A-level.

No one wants to see a return to History solely being about the rote learning of historical dates and of the names of the kings and queens of England, but I have been concerned for many years that young people lack a simple historical framework on which to hook ideas. Without such a framework it is not possible for young people to make connections between events and to develop understanding and insight. It is reassuring that such an eminent and well-known historian as Niall Ferguson is taking up the cause.

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