Make History Great Again!

Also, stop teaching youngsters that the past is something to be ashamed of.

Why don’t today’s children know more about history? In an age when information has never been easier to access, it’s alarming how many youngsters are ignorant about the past. In July, a survey of 1,000 schoolchildren found that four out of ten had no idea what the Battle of Britain was, while another four out of ten had never heard of Cleopatra. More than half didn’t know the Romans spoke Latin.

Of course every generation complains that children are ignorant of facts that we used to take for granted. Often it’s simply a question of changing priorities: where children once learned about Walpole and Gladstone, they now learn about the suffragettes and American civil rights. Even so, despite the success of Horrible Histories, you’d have to be wilfully blind to deny that history itself has rarely seemed so embattled.

The culture around our past has been nearly totally negative in recent years. Statues are desecrated, museums are "decolonized," heroes are "re-contextualized," and entire generations of authors and readers are labeled reactionaries. When the subject of Britain's history comes up in public debate, it's nearly always in the context of controversy, apologies, and blame.

From daring sea captain to cold-hearted slave dealer, Sir Francis Drake has undergone a transformation. Nelson's purported support for the triangle trade — at most a footnote in his career — gets more attention than his heroics at Trafalgar. Churchill is increasingly characterized by his detractors as a violently racist opponent of Indian independence who, for a little period in the 1940s, happened to lead Britain through a small diplomatic snafu.

Against this background, who’d choose to study history? For that matter, who’d be a history teacher? Even selecting a topic for your Year 4 children seems full of danger, with monomaniacal zealots poised to denounce you for reactionary deviation. And all the time you’re bombarded with ‘advice’, often in the most strident and intolerant terms. The National Education Union, for example, has advised its members that ‘British imperialism and racism’ should be woven into all history lessons from nursery upwards, so children can learn about ‘white privilege and colonialism’.

That's the tone: haughty, hand-wringing, and hectoring, always presenting our past as a source of shame. We are informed that the past is a place of pain, suffering, and victimization. The National Trust's widely panned dossier on its country homes' colonial ties begins by emphasizing the'sometimes painful role that Britain, and Britons, have played in world history,' and emphatically cautioning the reader that our past is 'tough to read and consider.' The Colonial Countryside Project, run by the Trust, encourages creative writing on the "trauma" that many country buildings have. To put it another way, drag the kids around an old house and make them unhappy. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think it will turn them into historians.

What explains all this? Part of it, I think, reflects an unconscious Americanisation of our public discourse, in which the black civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s looms as the most important — indeed, the only important — historical event. Go into Waterstones, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a children’s book on the Norman conquest or English civil war; but you can hardly move for biographies of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

Behind this lurks the spectre of ‘relevance’, a word history teachers ought to treat with undiluted contempt. History isn’t about you; that’s what makes it history. It’s about somebody else, living in an entirely different moral and intellectual world. It’s a drama in which you’re not present, reminding you of your own tiny, humble place in the cosmic order. It’s not relevant. That’s why it’s so important.

So, how should history be written for children? The solution seemed to me to be self-evident. I was enthralled as a child by tales of knights and castles, gods and pirates. It wasn't the prospect of a "uncomfortable" talk that drew me in. It had the promise of a compelling narrative. That's more like it, right? Alexander the Great crossing the Afghan highlands, Anne Boleyn screaming for her life on her way to the gallows, Britain's troops on the beaches of Dunkirk, Archduke Franz Ferdinand taking the wrong turn at the worst possible time...

A great story, then. And a great setting. All children are fascinated by alien worlds, from the planets of Star Wars to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Why should Cleopatra’s Alexandria, with its melting pot of languages and religions, its temples and theatres, its lighthouse and library, be any less intoxicating? True, it was unequal, poor, dangerous and cruel — and there were a lot of slaves. But do you get children interested by encouraging them to shake their heads in confected outrage? Of course not. You get them to lap it up, to imagine themselves catapulted into a different world.

There are also the characters to consider. Don't you believe that's what history is all about? People, not problems. The renowned names: Thomas More in the Tower, Edith Cavell before the firing squad, and T. E. Lawrence riding through the desert. Not-so-famous names include a gladiator who made his debut at the Colosseum, a Polish schoolgirl who took part in the Warsaw uprising, and a young sailor who fought in the Battle of Jutland. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few. They aren't the only ones. Previous generations' heroes were heroes for a reason. There isn't a single youngster alive who isn't enthralled by the tales of Nelson or Napoleon. Why should they be denied pleasure?

Finally, the most crucial consideration. It's not about a place, a time, or a person; it's about a mindset. 'They do things differently there,' L.P. Hartley famously said at the beginning of his classic work The Go-Between. 'The past is a foreign nation,' he famously wrote. Exploring that enormous, unimaginably rich country should be one of the most fascinating intellectual experiences of a boy's or girl's life, not a self-righteous humiliation exercise. Simply said, it should be enjoyable. This is why youngsters are fascinated with history. It's not because it's timely, beneficial, or even informative. And definitely not because it encourages resentment and victimization. Not because it's 'uncomfortable' or 'necessary,' but because it's the right thing to do. But it's enjoyable. Isn't that the finest motivation to accomplish anything?

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