Comment: Why Our Teenagers Need a Good Dose of Historical Perspective; Sarah H Evans Explains the Importance of Teaching History

Article excerpt

In terms of the academic year, we are at the stage when many young people have just had their "mock" GCSEs and A levels.

Teachers and parents may well be adapting the stick and carrot approach of dire warnings on the one hand and rallying speeches about there still being time on the other. "If you work really hard now, it will make such a difference."

"It is only for a few months; your exams are nearly here."

"You won't get anywhere if you have no qualifications."

"In years to come, you won't have the faintest memory of what you did on all these Friday and Saturday nights but you will be writing your GCSE results on your CV for ever."

The experience and knowledge of age is notoriously hard to pass on to youth. I remember the mother of a friend of mine, who was dying of cancer, saying about life, "You just feel you've got the hang of it all and then it's all over."

I didn't really understand what she felt at the time but 20 years on it becomes clearer: how much parents would love to pass on to their children the lessons in life they have learnt and how hard it seems to do.

Young children learn about and understand the world entirely from their own experience and perspective. All their education is about widening that childhood perspective and coming to understand their own experiences in a context of other people and other places.

The wisdom parents so much want to pass on, and which is so often apparently rejected by their own children, is part of what underpins the arts and humanities education in our schools.

What may be scorned coming from a parent, can be acceptable in a less domestic context. The National Curriculum has ensured all young people study history.

History shows us that there was a past inhabited by people like us and there will be a future which we, and others like us, will inhabit.

The life of the past makes today. The life of today makes tomorrow. So your habit of homework established today will effect tomorrow - or not . . .

Emphasis in history teaching is given to developing empathy, the skill that helps us to understand not just intellectually, but with our emotions, what it was like to live in another time.

Much work over the last generation has taken place on the part of history teachers, to build up materials that will do this. History teaching has increasingly come to emphasise social history with its focus on personal experiences, oral evidence, accessible sources, the equal importance of the experiences of all classes and both genders. …