Just a little bit of history not repeating itself

by Stephen Tall on December 29, 2006

Flicking through a discarded copy of The Times on the train today (it’s just about value-for-money when it’s free), I noticed a chain of correspondence concerning young people’s ignorance of who Marie-Antoniette was.

I can’t find it in myself to feign shock. I have spent a reasonable amount of my life learning history; indeed I have a degree in it. In seven years at ‘big school’, I was taught the following:

  • Year 7: Anglo-Saxons and Normans (mainly motte and bailey stuff);
  • Year 8: Tudors (divorced, beheaded, she died, etc);
  • Year 9: agricultural and industrial revolutions (“Smash the Spinning Jenny! Burn the rolling Rosalind!”);
  • Years 10-11 (GCSE): the rise of fascism and communism (Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini – yay! – videos to watch);
  • Years 12-13 (A-level): the rise of Nazism (another two years of the chap with the moustache doing a poor Charlie Chaplin impersonation); and Europe, 1815-1914 (that’s Europe *excluding* the UK – the history syllabus was way ahead of Ukip).

It’s as uninspiring as it looks. And not just uninspiring: unhelpful, too. Liberal as I am, I’m not a Whig, so I’ve never bought into the teleological approach to history – that the discipline allows us to trace humanity’s relentless advance towards a golden age of liberty, egality and fraternity.

If history teaches us anything it is that nothing is inevitable, and life is messy, fragmented, kaleidoscopic. To make any sense of it, historians divide our continuum into periods – but, of course, it’s not as if a switch was flicked, and folk suddenly realised the renaissance was happening all around them. Any more than it was pre-destined that the ‘geographical expression’ which is Italy should ever have existed.

But unless you have some grasp of chronology, it’s impossible to understand how incomprehensible history is. To teach history in disparate, bite-size chunks – dotting about between Tudors and Nazis – without ever trying to contextualise or connect is senseless.

Nor can it be healthy for this nation’s history to be so ignored. For me, British history stopped in 1603, with the death of Elizabeth I. In my 16 years of formal education, I was never once taught anything about what happened here in the UK in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries (other than the popularising of the crop rotation system). That just can’t be right.

And it is truly bizarre that the imperial role of the English/British in Ireland, the Middle East, USA or Africa over the centuries should be wholly absent from our curriculum. It is hardly as if such issues are no longer relevant, or even that young people would not be interested in our involvement.

I don’t buy into the dismal cliché that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it – because people usually learn the wrong lesson. But I do believe that to comprehend the present you must have some understanding of the past. It’s perfectly possible. Or, as Marie-Antoinette almost certainly never said, “It’s a piece of cake.”