Remember lessons of the past

As the nation remembers D-Day,  news that 73 per cent of youngsters under 25 have no idea what D-Day was, when it happened or who was involved is deeply disturbing.  

Two recent polls for national newspapers confirm the degenerative state of history teaching in schools. A few days ago, The Sunday  Telegraph (30 May 2004) asked 1,309 pupils aged between 10 and 14 from 24 different schools ten very basic questions about D-Day.  Only 28 per cent knew that D-Day was the beginning of the Allied liberation of occupied Europe. More than 1 in 4 did not even know that D-Day was an event in the Second World War.

A couple of days later, a Daily Mirror (1 June 2004) survey of 1,000 under-25s confirmed this ignorance among the young people.  Only 6 per cent correctly answered six basic questions about D-Day.  Asked who was British Prime Minister at the time, a 20-year-old university student replied, ‘Was it Tony Blair. I really don’t know mate.’  

Yet our history is not only part of our culture, it is the road map to our identity. More, it tells us who we are. Ignorance of our national history – national  amnesia – exposes us to those who wish to change this country forever. We need look no further than Mao’s China to see where the ‘abolition’ of history leads. Furthermore, ignorance of the past means we are condemned to repeat it.

So how has it all gone wrong?

Perhaps the first step backwards in the teaching of history occurred in the late 1980s, when the statutory National Curriculum was introduced.  At that time, the educational establishment was determined that ‘boring’ knowledge of historical facts and dates should be replaced by so-called skills of empathy, detecting bias and evaluating sources.  Instead of expecting youngsters to know the facts concerning the Battle of Trafalgar, they would be asked to explain how one of Nelson’s sailors might feel during the Battle.

A bitter debate took place in the media and elsewhere between those advocating the teaching of  historical knowledge and those supporting skills.  So much was at stake that two high-profile history teachers,  Anthony Freeman and Chris McGovern,  lost their jobs for attempting to preserve standards and guarantee that real history should be taught. This, of course, sent a message to all teachers to be silent. Dr Freeman has now left teaching altogether and Mr McGovern is head of juniors at an independent school.  Against an all-powerful, ‘progressive’ educational establishment, the traditionalists lost out.

A few years later, during 1993 and 1994, ministers asked Sir Ron (now Lord) Dearing to revise the National Curriculum to alleviate complaints from teachers that it was too demanding.  Again this was used as an excuse to remove events, personalities, facts and content.  As Chris McGovern wrote in a Minority Report (CRE, 1994) at the time, important history removed from the prescribed area of the National Curriculum by Dearing and his advisers included Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades,  Mary Queen of Scots, the Gunpowder Plot, the Napoleonic Wars including Nelson and Trafalgar, Wellington and Waterloo, the Crimean War and Florence Nightingale.

In response to the latest revelations of a woeful ignorance about D-Day, ministers disingenuously claim that the Second World War is part of the National Curriculum and children should all study it.  No-one should be deceived. Successive education ministers and their ‘progressive’ advisers at the Department for Education and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are the culprits. (On the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, the government sent a celebratory video to every school.  Its only mention of Churchill was to state that he lost the 1945 election, though the video did focus on the sexist nature of the war!)

Ministers’ over-prescribed, long-winded and largely ineffective initiatives to improve the teaching of  literacy and numeracy have reduced the time available to teach history (and other important subjects) in primary schools. Another political intervention,  decreeing that history (and geography) may be dropped when pupils reach 14,  has further undermined the subject.

This downward spiral has also been helped by New Labour’s alteration of the fundamental purpose of  education, from teaching knowledge of subjects to changing attitudes and values.  The National Curriculum Handbook for Secondary Teachers in England,  published in 1999 by the Department for Education and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, gives examples of topics that may be taught for ‘a world study after 1900’.  The two World Wars are included, but only asoptions alongside  ‘the changing role and status of women, the extension of the franchise in Britain, the Welfare State and the development of the European Union’.

By limiting the time available for the subject and adding swathes of politically correct social history into the curriculum, fundamental British political history has been squeezed out with devastating effects.  An undergraduate at St Andrew’s University recently told me that the greatest benefit of the Second World War was the consequent improvement in women’s rights!  She wasn’t joking – she vigorously defended her belief.

Those who sacrificed so much before, during and after D-Day were fighting for their monarch, for their country and for freedom. Sixty years later, subversives in our sloppy-minded state education system are determined to obliterate all such values from the consciousness of future generations.  They must not be allowed to succeed.   

/Nick Seaton, July 2004.

This article first appeared in The Yorkshire Post, 6 June 2004, with whose permission it is reproduced here. Readers were asked ‘Should history be better taught in schools?’   87 per cent responded ‘Yes’ and 13 per cent responded ‘No’.


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