The Importance of History

When the Normans conquered England back in 1066 the leading members of Saxon society, anyone of learning and influence, was killed, and history was rewritten. Or perhaps written would be the more apposite word since Saxon England had been an oral society, stories had been handed down by word of mouth, not ink on page. Centuries of culture were dismissed and for even more centuries that period was called the Dark Ages; a time of an inward-looking, backward society. The Normans weren’t stupid. They knew how to use propaganda. They weren’t going to go about praising the previous administration, reminding people that women had had more rights, that craftsmen thrived, that the class system was a Norman import.
Only discoveries like Sutton Hoo and more recently the Staffordshire Hoard have begun to reveal the extent of all the Norman disinformation and misinformation.
It’s a big lesson in why we shouldn’t let governments control what we learn. Since the introduction of a National Curriculum in the UK successive governments have tinkered about with what children should learn in schools. In the last few weeks the current minister for education, one Michael Gove, has been outlining what he wants children to be learning about in history lessons. It made me think about the Normans a lot. Gove hasn’t killed off historians who disagree with his views, but he so obviously disdains them, and his colleagues in the Department of Education, a place he dismisses as the Blob.

He wants children to learn his idea of Britain, his top ten of important figures in British history, his top ten of British achievements. To my mind this is not history teaching, but indoctrination of a dangerous kind. Simon Schama has described the proposed curriculum as “1066 and All That, without the jokes.”
History teaching should be a rigorous examination of facts and evidence, not rote learning of dates and uncritical regurgitation of expurgated biographies and biased accounts. It is a subject too important to leave to governments. History is our narrative; the story of who we are and where we have come from, warts and all.

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34 thoughts on “The Importance of History

  1. Some good reading here, Isobel. Brings back memories of me telling my own British ex about 1066. Education… it is free but many skim it in the same fashion they skim through life. Thanks for some good points to ponder. Everywhere.

  2. I agree completely, Isobel. So much of history is biased by the perspective of the person who is telling our story, and without the freedom of education you espouse, there isn’t a chance for others to tell their perspective of history. For example wouldn’t it be fun to teach the history of the US revolution from the perspectives of the British, the Colonists, and the Native Americans.

    • At A level we were always castigated for writing unbalanced essays. We could draw our own conclusions, but the essay had to show we were aware of different interpretations of events. What Gove is doing is drawing the conclusions and then saying children can learn about them. If there were something about the country’s greatest achievements designed to get children to learn about a whole range of things and then decide for themselves, whether those achievements were great, or in retrospect, not so great, maybe even howling mistakes that had negative repercussions, the subject would be worth while. To learn that x, y and z are this country’s greatest achievements as though this is an indisputable fact, is not. Maybe I am just cheesed off as the NHS, which I do believe is one of our greatest achievements, is not on the list! πŸ™‚

        • And the amazing thing is, it was set up at a time when the country was on its knees, nearly bankrupt after 2WW. I think that says a lot for the determination of Clem Attlee’s government. Now all we hear is that the country can’t afford this and that but we are much richer. Can’t afford, means not a priority.

        • Yes, I hear the same thing. People don’t want universal health care here and although most people are reasonable about gun control, the gun lobby has got gun control tied up because they can pay for dirty political ads to defeat anyone politician that votes for gun control.

        • Yes, it is about what we choose to spend our money on, rather than what we can afford. Although our defence budget is repeatedly cut, nuclear weapons remain in the arsenal, are renewed at tremendous cost. The government is spying on us in a way that bodes ill for our civil liberties and our notions of democracy. Fear, and maintenance of the status quo (back to the Normans again) seems the main driver.

  3. When I was a kid in the US I fell in love with history in the 5th grade. I can still remember the day when I realized that history wasn’t a story, but it actually happened. Then when I went to college and majored in history I learned that all the crap they taught me for the first 12 years was rubbish. George Washington never told a lie Lincoln born in a log cabin–not true at all. But when I learned this it made me love history even more. And i learned the stories are important, but you have to also supply the facts.

      • It is a great speech. Lincoln is one of my faves. It was eerie when I visited the place where he died. the poor man was so tall and the only bed that was close by was way too small for him.

        • Grim. After replying to you. Remembered reading a biography of Dickens written for children. It said he had to leave his wife because she was unsuitable! Too often when we make someone a hero we want to airbrush out all their faults, like your no lies story.

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