A Tsar Is Born: Following an Invitation to Help Advise the Government on the School History Curriculum, What Can a High-Profile 'Telly Don' like Niall Ferguson Bring to the Classroom? Sean Lang Wonders

Article excerpt

It has got to be any historian's dream: to be dubbed 'the history tsar' in the press and be asked to help draw up the history curriculum for schools in England. Who could begrudge Niall Ferguson a sense of triumph after Michael Gove, the new education secretary, publicly invited him to take on the task following a talk given by Ferguson at this year's Hay Festival? Of course some did just that and voiced dismay that the historian who had done more than anyone to revive public interest--some would say pride--in Britain's imperial past should have any say in deciding the future shape of history for the young.

There is a degree of double standard at play here. School teachers are pleased when their work is endorsed by a Michael Wood or a Simon Schama (both of whom have spoken supportively of teachers' work at history conferences, though Schama has also criticised the narrow coverage of the curriculum). But they can get indignant when it gets criticised by a David Starkey or a Niall Ferguson, who are obviously living in an ivory tower with no idea of what it's like teaching Year 9 on a Friday afternoon.

But not everyone falls into this camp. In a judiciously balanced piece in the Guardian (June 3rd, 2010), Martin Kettle warned against easy labelling of historians as 'right wing' or 'left wing'. After all, even Ferguson's generally positive view of the Empire did not prevent him from highlighting its many abuses. More importantly, such a complex history as Britain's does not lend itself to a single narrative, whether right wing or left wing, on which any sort of consensus can be expected. The unexpectedly moderate tone of online responses to Kettle's piece suggest that many readers agree with him.

But the aggrieved teachers do have a point: university and celebrity historians generally know little of the pressures history teachers face every day, from league tables and unsympathetic Continuing Personal Development coordinators to disruptive pupils and aggressive parents. In fact, some high-profile enthusiasts for educational change have proved themselves good classroom performers: Mayor Boris Johnson went down a storm when he visited a London girls' school recently to give a lesson in his beloved Latin (top tip for kids: Canis studia domestici devoravit, domina--the dog ate my homework, Miss). But what can telly dons, usually with little or no experience of teaching in schools, meaningfully contribute to the debate about the school curriculum?

The answer is a huge amount. Television history has to prove itself against two audiences every bit as cynical and difficult to win over as the most disaffected class: the television executive and the viewing public. The TV historian has to persuade the one to part with a lot of money and the other to stay tuned after EastEnders, possibly even to turn over from EastEnders. This requires more than mere passion for the subject; it requires the ability to look at it from a broad perspective, to identify those aspects of history that speak to us--and especially to young people--and to weave them into a coherent whole that makes sense to as wide an audience as possible. …