Paul Griffin calls for a new appreciation of the role of history in education, and the importance of teaching pupils about the wider picture of historical events

Now and again we are told that history is being badly taught in our schools. I think we need to remember that with rare exceptions history has always been badly taught, partly because there is so much of the stuff. My entire school career left me with little except the dates of the battles of Saratoga and Yorktown, which I had to write out many times over for the man who thought I should care, plus the confused feeling that there had been Corn Laws and a Reform Bill, whatever they were.

Mercifully, Mother had a good grounding in the old 1066 and All That type of history, so I grew up with some knowledge, and eventually read the great work itself. It meant that I now at least had a template for English history, into which I could fit what else I learnt about the past.

Now and again someone has the idea of making a great chart of world events from the beginning of time, which constitutes another such template, useful but too large to read and let sink in. People consult charts, but do not enjoy reading them.

It would have helped me to be told that with one exception the whole of our timetable was in fact concerned with history. Shakespeare, logarithms, The Barber of Seville, Pythagoras, Einstein, Leonardo, DNA, and of course the Bible, were all historical phenomena.

The meaning of life

When you think about it, everything you can teach in school, skills apart, is either in the realm of history or of faith, so it is important to have as clear an idea as possible of the importance of each.

The ultimate purpose of studying history is to help us find any meaning in life that we can, which is also a main purpose of education. No one can deny that seeing the triumphs and disasters of the ages enables us to learn: to stick to our guns and not despair, not to paint a masterpiece on unstable plaster, nor to leave dogs in hot cars, et cetera et cetera. Yet in these multifarious lessons of all sizes the overall question is so easily lost: what does it all mean to us?

While Theology is acknowledged as the Queen of Sciences, History should

be acknowledged as her Regent on Earth, and must have a prominent place in the philosophy of education, in so far as it concerns our temporal existence. Theology, or what follows the practical and historical study of the Bible and other sacred writings which takes up so much Religious Education, pursues that great question of the meaning of life beyond material boundaries.

To us, the Gospels offer an answer, one that does not satisfy everyone, there being other supernatural explanations on offer. What seems certain is that the teaching of history in one form or other must provide the ground for the teaching of theology.

Pieces of the puzzle

The proper inclusion of all other subjects in history, once grasped, means that each of them will take into account the need to fit its discipline into the main picture. The function of what is known as ‘history’ in school timetables is to offer the various parts of the picture, so as far as possible to complete the jigsaw. It is obvious that no one can cover all sorts and times of archaeology and history, social and constitutional, and the various histories of other nations in two or three periods a week.

The old custom of doing the Tudors and Stuarts, the Hanoverians, the colonial period, the two World Wars, and so on in different years and terms, is one way of adding extra pieces to the puzzle; but it must never be allowed to supersede the need for a school history department to spend time considering the overall picture.

Given my time again as a Head, I would want to gather my staff together and point out what I have written above. An English teacher knows he is teaching history, but mathematicians and others may not see the matter quite so clearly, or may well be jealous on behalf of their own subjects.

I have heard scientists mutter that they have not the time to go back and deal with the past; that to teach the Phlogiston Theory is not a good use of school time. I have every sympathy with their problems, but have found that knowing how new studies came into being can be a source of great interest and provoke questions of importance today.

Ancient truths

Giving emphasis to particular periods, while necessary, can mean that we run into the danger of ascribing different value to different periods of time. I can see the point of giving time to, say, Hitler’s Germany, as long as it is not suggested that its more up-to-date lessons are superior to those from long ago. A modern truth may be more comprehensible by being expressed in modern terms, but it is likely to prove an ancient truth dressed up. Forward in Faith knows this well enough.

The true lessons of the past do not date. Our task is of reinterpretation, not rejection. This should emerge from our history teaching, which because of the inadequate time that can be allotted to history specialists, should be a part of the teaching in all departments, whether of literature, science, languages, or religious knowledge.

To sum up, I believe that the teaching of history in schools must be a prime concern of educationalists, and that it should lead the young to reflect on the meaning of life in general, as well as the meanings of particular events in the past, ancient and recent.

I do not believe that I am telling Heads anything they do not already know; but to judge from the themes of current political debate about education, and from reports of parents and others, Heads are less able to influence the situation than ever before.

If history is still badly taught, the only possibilities for improving the situation are either by a general acceptance by the educational establishment of what I say, or preferably by leaving matters more in the hands of those sensible and decent (and often Christian) men and women who have embarked on their callings with an idea of the real needs of the human situation.