"The current approach we have to history denies children the opportunity to hear our island story," says Education Secretary Michael Gove. All they get is a series of case studies, "with no understanding of how the vivid episodes of our past become a connected narrative. Well, this trashing of our past has to stop." British history, he promises, will be restored to the heart of a revived national curriculum. Is he right — and if he is, why has the government trashed its support for the teaching of history in universities?
I grew up on Our Island Story, A History of Britain for Boys and Girls, H. E. Marshall's classic account, first published in 1905. Hengist and Horsa, Alfred and the cakes, the Princes in the Tower, Nelson at Trafalgar: it's all there. The book was republished in 2005 (in part with the support of a Daily Telegraph appeal), and there's even a CD. I've sought to pass it on to my children but, tellingly perhaps, we've never quite got past the Vikings. The book's moment has passed — as I've known since I started teaching history to undergraduates 20 years ago. Mine was the last generation to whom the story it told made sense.
Our Island Story worked because, for its readers, British history was still world history. Like other texts to which children used to be exposed — Caesar's Gallic War, the Aeneid — its purpose was to foster the values of discipline and self-sacrifice necessary to run a global empire. To the generation of students who came of age in the 1980s — "Greed is good" — this account of the burden of power was wholly illegible. Starting out as a lecturer in medieval history in the early 1990s, it dawned on me that I had more in common with the Victorians who pioneered the study of history at universities than I did with students who were (then) just a decade younger. I continue to teach British history, but rather as a doctor might, haplessly, prescribe nostalgia as a cure for a group of amnesiacs. It's not that the students are less clever, it's just that I cannot expect them to know what habeas corpus is, or how it might relate to Magna Carta. The situation is summed up in Sellar's and Yeatman's brilliant 1066 and All That (1930), the pitch-perfect satire of the Our Island Story tradition. The books ends on an ellipsis: "With Britain no longer Top Nation, History comes to a..."
Is there a way to reconstruct imperial tradition in the post-imperial era? Gove has turned to Simon Schama for advice, doubtless mindful of the success of Schama's History of Britain, which came to our television screens some ten years ago. Schama's eloquence may have sold the series, but it also sought to please too many masters. His History was not the many-angled analysis of the making of Britain initially promised, but in reverting to a standard canter through the kings and queens of England, it took some short cuts. It was not the connected narrative which Gove has promised the next generation of students. (The same doubts attend Schama's recent manifesto in the Guardian.)
Lawrence's portrait of Queen Charlotte, from the current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery
Two other historians are currently in view. One, Michael Wood, is offering The Story of England as told "from the bottom up", from the perspective of one village in Leicestershire. The accompanying TV series and the book are vivid and engaging, and take you to how historians actually weigh different types of evidence. In terms of substance, if Gove wants history to inspire families on a budget or small businesses trying to stay afloat, then this is certainly it. But as a primer for a youth audience it won't work so well, because to appreciate the worm's-eye view offered by Wood, you have to know the basic story of England.