Is Hunter’s History Bunk?

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On the letters page of the new issue of Standpoint, two leading historians debate the state of history in schools today.

Professor Jackie Eales and Professor Jeremy Black both wrote to Standpoint in response to an article by Matthew Hunter (“History Lessons for the 21st-Century Classroom”), a secondary-school history teacher who writes for the magazine pseudonymously. Hunter questioned “the received wisdom of what makes a good history teacher”. “A whole generation of child-centred teachers will have to be retrained or retire before this can happen,” he said.

Hunter’s argument was endorsed by Niall Ferguson who wrote in the Guardian: “If you want to understand what is really wrong with history in English schools, read Matthew Hunter’s excellent essay”.

In Wednesday’s Times, 15 historians (eight of whom have written for Standpointendorsed Michael Gove’s draft “Programme of Study for History”. The Education Secretary wants children to leave school with a more comprehensive understanding of English and British history.

Here are Professor Jackie Eales and Professor Jeremy Black’s letters:

Matthew Hunter’s article “History lessons for the 21st century classroom” (January/February) raises important issues about history teaching in schools, but does so from a narrow perspective. Its central thrust is that trendy, child-centred education has made the subject so boring that only a minority take history at GCSE. Current teaching methods are parodied throughout the article, which suggests that amateur theatricals have supplanted the rigorous historical education of yore.

Hunter is right in stating that the content of the national curriculum is not the problem, but his analysis of what is wrong is based largely on personal experience. As any historian knows, a single anecdotal source is in need of corroboration and it would be wise to consider more evidence. The blame for this “degradation” is attributed to the influence of the Schools History Project (SHP), which allegedly favours the transmission of nebulous skills to the exclusion of facts. In reality the SHP advocates a synthesis of historical knowledge and understanding based on a firm grasp of period and chronology. These essentials are reinforced by the GCSE criteria, which stipulate that pupils should display their factual knowledge, as well as their comprehension of the past.

Between 2007 and 2010 history was the second most popular optional subject at GCSE in English schools. The numbers taking it have remained relatively stable and history is regularly one of the top five choices at A-level. Yet the annual surveys of hundreds of history teachers, undertaken by the Historical Association since 2009, show two key concerns. These are the limited time allocated to history, which in extreme cases can be as little as an hour a week, and the lack of support for non-specialist or inexperienced teachers.

It is absurd to believe that the solution to these problems lies in the re-education of a generation of teachers. In attacking the work of thousands of his colleagues on the basis of his own experiences, Matthew Hunter is guilty of practising exactly what he preaches against: holding up a picture and jumping to conclusions with insufficient reference to the facts.

Professor Jackie Eales, President of the Historical Association, Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent

In his instructive article on the problematic condition of history teaching in many schools Matthew Hunter draws valuable attention to serious issues of content, form and ethos. These richly deserve the attention to the issue being devoted by Michael Gove. It is worth asking how far there is a parallel problem in the universities and, indeed, whether that does not deserve some of the blame for the situation in the schools.

The welcome absence of a national curriculum ensures that there is no exact parallel but, nevertheless, there are common elements. In particular, there is an emphasis on “study skills”, and a focus on the in-depth coverage of particular issues and episodes. While this approach draws valuably on the particular knowledge and enthusiasm of individual specialists, and also introduces students to conceptual and methodological topics, it does not provide a coherent account of the past. There are also of course the questions about subjectivity addressed by Mr Hunter. As an additional point, much of university history appears planned as if preparing undergraduates for training as academics. In contrast, the issues involved in providing an education of value in a mass-access system have not received sufficient attention.

The situation in Britain is better than its dire counterpart in many (but not all) continental countries and, outside Oxbridge where short terms still prevail, the teaching effort is considerable. However, it is possible to take a history degree and emerge knowing very little about the history of Britain while also, paradoxically, lacking any real framework of global history.

Professor Jeremy Black, Department of History, University of Exeter