I recently came across a great article on The Observer website by historian Tristram Hunt, talking about the lack of knowledge of British history among British children and arguing that:
The news that only one-third of Britons can recognise the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral will come as no surprise to anyone who has visited a classroom recently. As this summer’s sky-rocketing GCSE results will no doubt confirm, this is the cleverest generation ever. But the awkward truth is that within our education system, there lurks a crippling ignorance of British history and our cultural heritage. And part of the problem is the accelerating trend for school trips abroad.
… But is it really a good use of resources for 15-year-olds to fly to the American south (as EF Tours hopes they will) ‘to trace the steps of Dr Martin Luther King’ along the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, when they know so little of our own history of political struggle? As Geoffrey Robertson QC deftly puts it in his new introduction to The Levellers: The Putney Debates: ‘We allow our children to leave school at 16 knowing nothing of this period. They study the rise and fall of Hitler and the rise and rise of the United States; the struggle of civil rights takes place, in their curriculum, in Little Rock and Mississippi, never at Naseby or Putney.’
And I must say I completely agree with him. Not only children, who do have the excuse of being young, but also many adults seem often unaware of the most fascinating aspects of the history of this country. Not long ago, I was speaking to two girls, both under the age of 12 and I was, as I seem to do to everyone I know, trying to make them comprehend how fascinating history was. I started explaining how the Romans built huge bath houses in Britain, which I’d visited and found fascinating and they just didn’t believe me! They seemed to think I was making it up! I also tried the technique of explaining how they were standing in the same place where people in the Edwardian era stood (in a house built around 1910) and how incredible that was. But I received the comeback that actually the floorboards had been replaced since then so I was wrong.
I know I am digressing from a discussion of people’s ignorance of British history, but it does highlight a seeming lack of interest. I live in London and am even now still slowly realising the immense wealth of history there is here, and so to some extent I do consider myself as knowing a lot less about my own history than I should, and most children simply aren’t taught about the history of their local area at all. The only British history I remember being taught at primary school was the Tudors, along with the Egyptians and the Romans, and this style of teaching I think makes history seem very remote, especially to children to whom the 1960s can seem just as distant as the 1500s.
To really get a grasp of the history of your own country, you need to experience where and how people lived and that means visiting some out of the vast numbers of historic monuments we’re blessed with here in Britain. If children don’t have a reasonable understanding of the chronology and experiences of the history of Britain, then how can they possibly be expected to understand the events of the Russian revolution or the Wall Street Crash? Let’s get kids back to the wonders of the cathedrals and castles of home!