History and National Identity in the Classroom

By Goalen, Paul | History Today, June 1997 | Go to article overview

History and National Identity in the Classroom


Goalen, Paul, History Today


During the course of 1995, Dr Nick Tate, the Chief Executive of SCAA (School Curriculum and Assessment Authority), initiated a debate on the role of history teaching in schools in the formation of national identity. In a keynote speech delivered to history teachers and advisers in York in September 1995, Dr Tate outlined his belief that `national identities depend on stories' and that teachers need to provide children with `a sense of belonging to a community which stretches back into the past and forward into the future' in order to give them `a sense of meaning in a world which is in a state of constant social, economic and technological flux'. Like others before him, Dr Tate assumed that large doses of British history served up as part of the staple diet of our children's schooling would affect the way they perceive themselves as members of the wider community of Great Britain.

Yet there is little evidence beyond the assertions of some politicians and administrators that the history curriculum is capable of turning children into `better' citizens. Previous researchers into the development of patriotism in children, such as E.L. Horowitz and J. Piaget writing in the 1940s and 1950s, did not focus on the contribution of the history curriculum to the development of identities, whilst more recent research into early twentieth-century imperialistic and patriotic history textbooks sometimes assumed that their messages were quietly absorbed by a passive audience.

There are indeed limits to what a centrally controlled history curriculum can produce. The notion of serried ranks of passive pupils absorbing the carefully constructed historical messages of the dominant regime may seem attractive to extremists at either end of the political spectrum but would have little chance of success in late twentieth-century classrooms. In the first place, the history curriculum would have to be intolerably prescriptive and absorbed through standardised texts and rote learning to have any chance of delivering an officially approved version of the past. Even then, if the pupils did not riot through boredom, they would probably quietly reject such a pedagogical catastrophe as a dull and tedious imposition on their time and consciousness.

Secondly, there are few history teachers who would willingly accept appointment simply as story tellers to the tribe, for as Alfred Smyth, writing in The Times Educational Supplement, has recently reminded us, `No one version of the past can be mummified like Lenin in his tomb in Red Square and preserved in a glass case by an establishment bent on imposing its own perception of events'. Indeed, if there has never been an agreed version of the national past, and if history remains an argument about the past as well as a record of it, then teachers may continue to debunk establishment heroes and challenge a `drum and trumpets' version of the past with more democratic perspectives of life `below stairs'.

Thirdly, there has seemed to be a movement in recent times to return the history teaching profession to the `great tradition' that dominated history classrooms for the first seventy years of this century. This tradition focused mostly on British political history which was taught chronologically from Julius Caesar to 1914 by teachers who operated didactically, employing methods such as reading round the class, dictation, and copying notes from the blackboard. Historians such as V.E. Chancellor, John Mackenzie and Richard Aldrich have drawn attention to the imperialist and patriotic flavour of this syllabus, at least as reflected in some textbooks and official statements.

The version of history to be found in schoolbooks written in the 1930s which were still in print and widely used in the 1960s, such as the Macmillan junior histories, Nelson's four volume series `The House of History', and the Collins series `The Thrill of History', was as Mackenzie wrote in Propaganda and Empire, `nationalist and patriotic, devoted to stories of great men and of significant events (usually wars) in a national march to greatness'. …

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