Lament for History's Lost Narrative

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Sitting in a Hay-on-Wye tea shop, reading (what else?) The Guardian, I come across Niall Ferguson's recent blast at school history teaching in the face of what seems like complacency by Ofsted who said in a recent report:

"There was much that was good and outstanding.  ... Most pupils enjoyed well-planned lessons that extended their knowledge, challenged their thinking and enhanced their understanding."

One of Ferguson's complaints is that young people don't know very much history any more — actually, that history undergraduates – well, actually those at Cardiff – don't know key events, places, times and actors: think, here, the Armada, Waterloo, Boer War and Victorian prime ministers.  Another issue is that, in Ofsted's words:

"some … found it difficult to place the historical episodes they had studied within any coherent, long-term narrative. They knew about particular events, characters and periods, but did not have an overview.  Their chronological understanding was often underdeveloped and so they found it difficult to link developments together."

The only thing wrong with this observation, Ferguson says, is that Ofsted seems to think it applies only to primary school pupils, whereas it could equally well be applied to those in secondary school – and students at a good few universities, too.  The inspectors note elsewhere that, in 28 of the 58 secondary schools they visited,

"students' chronological understanding was not sufficiently well developed: they had … a poor sense of the historical narrative".

Ferguson says that this is hardly a minor deficiency.  He also notes that some young people are actually ceasing to study history at age 13 and wonders what's going on.  Nothing new here, I thought.  I 'dropped' (odd phrase as I'd never really picked it up) history when 13 because of the demands of the option sets, and yet I know all the dates, places, actors and events that Ferguson mentions — and a lot more besides; all self-absorbed in the intervening 50 years.  Largely because I was interested and curious, I suspect.

Mind you, whether I have an adequate sense of the historical narrative, is another question, as this is the essence of history for me: where have we come from, and how and why, and what does this tell us about who we now are, and who we might yet be.

So many gaps to fill ... .  It's a good job there are people like Ferguson, Sharma, Starkey, ... prepared to go on TV to help.

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