Michael Gove is currently suggesting that British History should form at least 40% of the GCSE syllabus. And Oliver Stone thinks Americans need to learn more about their history (or at least, his version of their history, in 'The Untold history of the United States'). Both of them may have a point.
Consider what the following story tells us about the state of history teaching in Britain; this exchange took place at The Groucho Club in London, between me and a thirty-something successful businessman.
Him: "Why's it called the Groucho?"
Me: "Groucho as in Groucho Marx. You know... the Marx Brothers?"
Him: "Oh. You mean Karl Marx!"
The Marx Brothers; Groucho, Chico, Harpo, ...and Karl. Is this what our education system (incidentally in this case, public school) has produced? It reminded me of my conversation with a 26 year old a couple of years ago. I was trying to explain the senior management structure of a company we were working with, and likened it to a 'Politburo'. Again, not the faintest idea what I was talking about.
Having studied History, it's not just a subject I thoroughly enjoyed at Oxford, it's also a discipline that I feel offers real value; to individuals, society, and The World.
At an individual level, the idea that a fully grown product of our education system thinks Karl Marx might be a 'Marx Brother' is amusing. At a societal level this ignorance of history, of who we are, where we came from, and why we think what we think, is worrying. But when nations and politicians have little or no understanding of history, it's potentially catastrophic.
In domestic and economic policy, we often hear from politicians about 'new' solutions to problems. There are almost no new solutions to anything. Most things have been tried before, and their outcomes can help us work out what might happen if we try it again. History is how we avoid reinventing the wheel and, more important, how we avoid reinventing the square wheel. If, for example, you wanted to know what happens when the money supply is dramatically increased, you could ask a historian what happened a few hundred years ago, when Spanish galleons began unloading vast quantities of silver from the New World. (It's probably more useful than talking to an economist.)
The most significant danger in misunderstanding history lies not in domestic, but foreign policy. Societies cohere around their stories, which are derived, if sometimes loosely, from their history. Catastrophes can occur when nations latch onto inaccurate (or deliberately partial) ideas of what their story is. (Who knows what warped version of history is being fed to students in North Korea?) Too often these stories take on a life of their own, and the historical context gets lost. They evolve into stories about black versus white, good versus evil, whereas history tells us that the reality is more likely to involve shades of grey.
The word 'history' derives from Herodotus' Historia - a word that in Greek actually means 'investigations'. History is far more than a mere chronicle of fact. As Oliver Stone is keen to suggest, the fact that the atom bomb was dropped in 1945 is less important than his views on whether it was necessary to do so.
History therefore teaches us that context matters. One of the major benefits of the study of history is that it develops the critical faculties needed to see beyond the hidden agenda, to be aware of the inbuilt bias of the observer and reporter. All highly pertinent to any citizen. Most people are neither good, nor evil, but prisoners of context, and so are the nations in which they live. Even the North Koreans.
So history matters in many ways, and the study of history enables us to be critical judges of versions of history put before us, including Oliver Stone's and (to take us back to the Groucho Club), the version offered by Karl Marx. Marx, after all, begins chapter one of his Communist Manifesto with the words, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." And look where that view of history got us.
If Stone's 'Untold History' series, and Michael Gove's reforms, do nothing more that stimulate debate and interest in history, it will have been well worth it.Suggest a correction