Richard Grayson: Improve history in Britain's schools? Put Simon Schama in every classroom

Roundup: Talking About History

[Richard Grayson is one of three vice-chairs of the Liberal Democrat federal policy committee (writing in a personal capacity) and professor of twentieth century history at Goldsmiths, university of London.]

Simon Schama is one of the UK's most brilliant historians and particularly excels at telling stories. His BBC series A History of Britain is arguably the most provocative and engaging televisual narrative of our island story ever produced. So it is no surprise that the government wants Schama to play a role in reshaping the school history curriculum. David Cameron's recent gaffe about Britain being the junior partner to the US in 1940 suggests that narrative remedial work would be useful to many, and fast. Yet narrative has its own problems and the announcement also makes me wonder if the government really understands what is going on in state schools today when it comes to history teaching.

One of the key strengths of Schama's work points to one of the problems of "narrative". Schama's take on history is a personal take. A History of Britain was precisely that: 'A' not 'The' history. I have no doubt that Schama recognises the partiality of his approach. It is the same for any historian. We do not state at the start of each book, "this is only my view" but we all know it, despite the accusations that postmodernist theorists have tried to pin on the profession.

How we deal with that is to recognise that there are many approaches to history, offer those, and recognise that they change. Schools now teach about Mary Seacole's role as a nurse in the Crimean war, where we only used to hear about Florence Nightingale. It took decades of work to give black history its proper place in our society, work which was once dismissed by the right as trendy .

Even traditional narrative histories see the revisionist effects of new research, challenging narratives that once had almost sacred status. As part of military history, the study of Ireland and the first world war is about as traditional as one can get. But the recent upsurge of interest in the role of Irish nationalists in the British army in the first world war has radically revised a dominant narrative that focused on unionist sacrifice on the Somme in 1916. Over the past two decades many historians have shown that nationalists were also there. Narratives change and so they should, which means we should all be taught to be sceptical of them.

Cameron said in the interview with Schama in the FT, which appears to have prompted this initiative: "I'm all for teaching, 'What does it feel like to be a Roman centurion?', but the problem is if you can't place it [in context]." This is nonsense...

comments powered by Disqus