Tristram Hunt: Lessons about the war are history (UK)

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Tristram Hunt is a lecturer in modern British history at Queen Mary, University of London.]

Behind the headlines about Wikipedia replacing the second world war and vlogging ousting Queen Victoria, Sir Jim Rose's new plans for the primary school curriculum aren't all bad. Indeed, if delivered intelligently, they might even begin to chip away at the nefarious "Hitler and the Henries" approach to history teaching in the classroom.

Of course, the mature-in-years Rose has been well and truly had by the Hoxton-finned IT brigade when it comes to courses on blogging and podcasts. School should be about learning and understanding, not delivering the endlessly shifting networking and social skills set which is easily picked up outside the school gates. Indeed, by the time the Twitter sub-committee has finalised its memorandum on "communication and technological understanding" today's technology fads will have gone the way of CD-Roms and Betamax.

More important is what happens to history. Rightly, Rose is stripping away the endless tier of regulations and stipulations that the Department for Children, Schools and Families – the last, great centralising Whitehall Lubyanka – has imposed on teachers, for a slimmed-down curriculum of six core "learning areas". Depressingly, I think history falls under something entitled "human, social and environmental understanding" (can you believe it?). And what Rose wants is for schools to focus on two key periods of British history – but it would be up to teachers to decide which.

If this means the end of the second world war for under-11s, then so be it. In fact, it's a good thing. For the 1940s is the one area of history that suffuses our public understanding of the past: on the radio, in newspapers, on television and film and at pretty much every major museum, the second world war is well and truly covered. More than that, at Key Stage 3 (11-14), then GCSE, and then AS- and A-level, the Reichstag fire, the rise of Hitler, the Nazi-Soviet pact and the D-Day invasion is pretty much all the history school kids learn. About 80% of A-level students study the Nazis. As a result, as a recent Ofsted report made plain, we have completely lost sight of the 18th century as a topic of teaching – not to mention the wars of the roses, the English civil war and the history of empire. Letting go of the second world war – even saying goodbye to Queen Victoria – could prove a liberation...

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