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History At A Crossroads As England Reviews National Curriculum - With Simon Schama's Help

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SIMON SCHAMA
Historian Simon Schama, 66, is advising Michael Gove on the reform of England's history curriculum. | Getty

When asked about his role in overhauling England's national history curriculum, famed historian Simon Schama understates his contributions.

"It's not a very sexy field," Schama, 66, told The Huffington Post.

The professor at Columbia University in New York is advising the Education Secretary Michael Gove on a project to revamp the way the pupils in England are taught history.

"There is no official appointment," he continued. "A large number people are helping with the review of the National Curriculum."

But despite Schama's downplaying, the appointment has put the fast-talking historian in the middle of a broad, contentious process that is as much about what happens in classrooms as it is about a nation's understanding of itself.

"Depending upon the stress that's placed on one kind of study or another is a reflection of the political perspective and, broadly, ideas about what kind of nation England should be," said Dane Kennedy, a history professor at Washington University.

"In the British context, the new government's concerned to pull back a multicultural approach to education," he continued. "The question that they're addressing is what do we want kids to know about being citizens of Britain?"

As Schama himself wrote in The Guardian,, current teaching methods, with their overall lack of narrative drive and chronology, threaten to cut the "cord of our national memory."

After Gove asked Schama to advise the government on history teaching in October, Schama embarked on a listening tour to learn more about teachers' concerns. "There's not enough time given to history each week," Schama said. "It's minimal if you want to have an overarching sense of where your country has come from."

A 2009 study conducted by the Historical Association showed that few children receive history education after two years of secondary school and about half of academy schools spend less than one hour a week on history.

These findings, and the current state of history education in England, Schama said, could be attributed to the pressure on schools to teach to the test. "History is a tall order. It's a tough subject to get students doing really well on," he said.

On that front, the case in England mirrors the situation in the U.S., where test scores on history exams have remained largely stagnant. In June, results released on the only standardised national U.S. exam in history deemed just 17% of high school seniors proficient in the subject. Compared to other national tests, history had the lowest proficiency rates.

Ted McConnell, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, lamented the scores at the time. He further laments Gove's stated desire to make the curriculum leaner, despite his push to popularise history. "We've always considered Britain a leader in civic learning amongst the world's democracies," he said. "It saddens me that there is official contemplation of doing away with the requirement for this essential part of every student's education."

Schama read the news about U.S. history scores, too. "It's depressing and slightly surprising to me," he said. "History is the least proficient subject of all. That's horrifying."

"When history has become a catch word, both sides of the political spectrum are incredibly quick to invoke history, which doesn’t prevent someone like Michele Bachmann from getting it wrong," he continued. "She was a home schooler. I wonder what history she taught."

Schama is part of a larger process, itself an unfolding history of the way the story of a nation should be taught. Britain received its first National Curriculum in 1988, at Margaret Thatcher's behest. The law that enabled its creation contained measures to prevent any government from using the curriculum as a political instrument.

Orders concerning the curriculum, according to The Guardian, had to be reviewed by parliament, and were referred to the National Curriculum Council. The NCC would consult with education stakeholders, such as teachers, and could make its own recommendations.

In May 2010, Gove said the government would close the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency -- the modern-day NCC -- which is responsible for setting the curriculum at a distance from the politics of the ruling party. The decision raised concerns about a potentially politically oriented curriculum.

In November, Gove formalised his intention to overhaul the current curriculum by releasing a White Paper. He called the curriculum "straitjacket which stifles the creativity of our best teachers."

"We will slim down a curriculum which has become over-loaded, over-prescriptive and over-bureaucratic by stripping out unnecessary clutter and simply specifying the core knowledge in strategic subjects which every child should know at each key stage," Gove said at the time, pledging to give teachers more flexibility.

Since then, Gove assembled a formal board, several advisors -- including Schama -- and solicited the comments of teachers and organisations such as the Historical Association.

The process has spurred discord about the teaching of history. "There's a pervasive debate amongst historians between history as events and facts, or history as process and investigation," Dr. Tony Breslin, who runs an education consulting group in England and formerly led the Citizenship Foundation, told The Huffington Post. "The absence of a broader narrative becomes more and more an issue. It's not just about history. It's about identity and a national story in a diverse society."

Overall, Schama said he wants to address that concern. "The problem is the discontinuity of history in the National Curriculum," Schama said. "I've been visiting some schools and listening to what they had to say and trying to disaggregate what might be wrong in the curriculum itself."

In a few weeks, he'll partake in a conference hosted by the Historical Association, followed by another one in July. Eventually, he said, he'll produce his own document to go before Gove's National Curriculum panel.

The final result of the curricular review, according to Ben Walsh, deputy president of the Historical Association, won't be ready for about 18 months. In his view, it's not the content of the current history curriculum that's the matter. “The current curriculum is certainly not perfect and we hope it will be improved as a result of this review," Walsh said. "However, one of the most serious problems with the old curriculum was that the text of the document was never fully implemented. Whilst we have a curriculum on paper, the way in which schools have decided to implement the whole curriculum have tended to marginalise history a bit."

"We as an association have been saying you wouldn’t have to change the curriculum a lot," Walsh continued. "You just have to do what you say you're going to do."

***

Schama identified six areas in history that must be studied, including the "whole showdown between religious and royal/secular ideas of law and sovereignty embodied in the persons of Thomas Becket and Henry II," and "the Indian moment."

When asked about his goals, Schama said he "would like to reinstate the indispensable importance of history to a culture and a nation where a substantial part of the population that comes from different cultures. They don’t need to know everything about the Anglo Saxon kings but, rather, what the hell the Brits were doing in India."

He also wants history education to continue into secondary school, beyond age 14.

"But you can't do it if the pressures on the curriculum of such that it squeezes you so that it's prohibitive for time," he said.

At its best, Schama said, history is gripping. "There was an incredibly good young historian I saw taking sixteen year olds to through the Third Reich," Schama said. "They had a very intensive, detailed confident grip of the period when Hitler had been elected by the Weimar democracy. They knew the story line. He'd given them the story line."

"Hands were leaping into the air. He was a model," Schama said. "There are not enough of him." Universities, he said, do not produce enough teachers who specialise in history.

Peter Mandler, a University of Cambridge professor who chairs the Royal Historical Society's teaching and learning committee, said he would rather the curriculum focus on secondary schools. He's skeptical about Schama's role. "We don’t want curriculum design by celebrities," he said. "They have to be able to establish as a claim as professionals to contribute to the difficult process of teaching children in a classroom."

James Vernon, a professor of British history at the University of California, Berkeley, expressed similar fears. "The main issue is a lack of time. It's not addressing the main problem," he said. "It's a politically inspired attempt to tell a particular version of the subject."

Kennedy is optimistic about Schama's goals. "He's very articulate and good at presenting history in an engaging fashion. The conservative government saw him as a way of giving real prominence to this enterprise," he said. "Reading what I've seen, he's not saying let's just give a history that extols our nation's virtues."

But Kennedy called it ironic that while the government lauds history's prominence, it effectively cut off funding to teaching degrees in the humanities.

"There are noble pedagogical intentions by the DfE, I get along with Michael Gove," Schama said. "I don’t like what's happened to the new structure in higher education. I've made that very clear. I'm not going to publicly endorse all their policies."

"Ultimately, history delivers the kind of wisdom that teaches how to live most richly inside a human skin," he said.

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