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

First Posted: 06/07/11 00:52 Updated: 03/09/11 11:12

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

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."