Peter Furtado reports on the anxieties voiced at a recent Historical Association conference.
The over-concentration on Hitler and the other twentieth-century dictators in secondary schools is now worrying the Historical Association (HA). It has recently asked the government to ensure that the traditional breadth of the subject is maintained in the current review of A-Levels. But despite the future during the summer about the axing of Anglo-Saxon history (an option taken up by very few students, but restored to the A-Level syllabus after an intervention by David Blunkett, secretary of state for education), the government is insisting on a sharp reduction in the number of options available to A-level students.
While welcoming diversity and innovation in history teaching, Baroness Blackstone, minister for education, has told the Historical Association that history, with a total of 904 options at A-Level, currently offers the widest choice of all disciplines -- which she considers is not necessarily of benefit to either teachers or students. She has therefore asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which has responsibility for maintaining the overall standards and content of syllabi, to achieve substantial reductions in the number of choices on offer -- something, she admits, not easily done, as the debate on Anglo-Saxon history showed.
The need for wider options
In response, Professor Bill Speck, HA president, called a meeting at York University on September 9th, where Sean Lang argued that it has become impossible to come up with a coherent pattern of learning as history has become compartmentalised. He confirmed that many students study Hitler three or four times during their school careers, and pointed out that it is not just the obsession with dictators and mass murder that is worrying: the `marginalisation of US history in our schools is a great tragedy'.
Rosamond McKitterick, professor of early medieval history at Cambridge, argued that medieval history should be available to students by right, as well as being an enjoyable, enlightening and attractive part of history -- especially for those who believe that history should be about knowledge and change as much as war and violence. She also points out that it is not just Anglo-Saxon history which has been under threat: early medieval European, late medieval British and European and even eighteenth-century studies are all under threat.
Who is responsible?
Just who is to blame for the shrivelling of History-Beyond-Hitler is much debated. The focus on the mid-twentieth century has undoubtedly snowballed as publishers produce more and more materials which schools invest in, and the cycle is hard to break. The examination boards need to show a profit and are under commercial pressure to axe less popular options. However, they express sympathy with the demands for range and flexibility, and argue they are constrained by QCA, especially in view of the strict timetable imposed by the introduction of the new AS syllabi in September 2000. They also quote QCA's insistence that the interests of adult learners, who make up a significant proportion of those choosing medieval options, should be secondary to those of 16-18-year-olds. …