Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

In the annual A-level results debate, the government is politically sensible to position itself as the 'well-done-kids-the-standards-are-getting better-all-the-time' party. It thus turns anyone who says that the government's policies aren't working into a sour-faced child-hater. But what if both sides of the argument are right? What if children do work harder than ever and yet are educated less well? This is surely what is happening. Like compliance with directives in the workplace, achievement at A-level is more and more a matter of doing a great deal of clerical work as instructed. It is not seen as a means of acquiring knowledge and applying it independently. I know young people from families who have never been near a university and now get into the best. That is a wonderful thing. Often, though, they have not been taught how to learn much when they get there. That is not a wonderful thing. When I was a student nearly 30 years ago, we used to look with absolute amazement at American students who said they had 'done' James Joyce (or whoever), by which they meant that they had lecture notes and coursework about him but had never read any of his books. Now Americans read more books than we do.

When the 300th anniversary of the battle of Blenheim was celebrated on 12 August, it was pointed out how few people now knew why the battle mattered. Fuller information on French defeats comes from the Essex historian and thinker, Adrian Sykes, who has produced a full list, month by month, of England's victories over the French since 1066 (available from him at awgs@sykes.co.uk). August offers, in chronological order, Minden, the Nile, the surrender of Calais in 1347, Blenheim, the storming of Ahmednagar fortress ('French advisers', Sykes notes cryptically), Harfleur, the battle of the Spurs in 1513 ('The French used their spurs more than their swords'), Rolica, Almeida, Lincelles, Lagos, Vimeiro, Dover, Crécy, the capture of Java in 1811, and Walcourt. Sykes also includes some controversial entries, such as 7 February 1992: 'Treaty of Maastricht. Britain refused to accept the Social Chapter', and 14 March 1959: 'Leeds. England's biggest victory over France in a rugby match (50-15)'.

There were, it must be acknowledged, occasions when the French beat the English. One was the battle of Castillon, where we lost the Hundred Years' War under the command of an ancestor of mine called John Talbot. On holiday there last month, we were touched to find the Monument de Talbot by the banks of the Dordogne. Talbot himself fell because he was so conspicuous in the bright clothes he wore to Mass that morning. The monument does not depict him, but a Virgin and Child on a pillar. It is courteous of the French to name the statue after the dead man rather than their great victory.

Sykes ingeniously includes the battle of Hastings on his list because it 'resulted in the Norman creation of the nation state of England'. Last week the BBC television series Battlefield Britain tackled 1066 and all that. Although it features the engaging Peter Snow and his pleasant, quieter son Dan, the programme managed to exhibit almost every infuriating feature of history on the telly. The grisly device of actors playing the participants was made worse by them pretending to reminisce round a campfire. …

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