Michael Gove's new national curriculum is out, and already the big guns of Oxbridge are blasting the changes it proposes to the way English kids are taught history.
From Cambridge no less a personage than Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of History, condemned Gove's attempt to restore "rote learning of the patriotic stocking-fillers so beloved of traditionalists". According to Evans, the new curriculum was "a Little England version of our national past, linked to an isolationist view of our national future". It constituted "a mindless regression to the patriotic myths of the Edwardian era".
From Oxford came the echo. David Priestland said it was a "depressingly narrow … resolutely insular … politicised and philistine" document. "We are … firmly back in the land of the Edwardian bestseller Our Island Story."
The pomposity of these attacks is in inverse proportion to their accuracy. Indeed, if you want a perfect illustration of how depressingly narrow, resolutely insular and politicised Oxbridge historians can be, read these two. You have to wonder when, if ever, these learned professors last set foot inside a school classroom, or last had a conversation with a history teacher or a pupil about the current key stages 2 and 3.
Evans's enthusiastic allusion to "the existing breadth and ambition of coverage, critical method and historical debate" suggests an almost wilful ignorance of – or indifference to – the parlous state of historical knowledge among young Britons.
If you want to understand what's really wrong with history in English schools, read schoolteacher Matthew Hunter's excellent essay in the latest issue of Standpoint. As Hunter rightly says, it's not just the defective content of the old national curriculum that is the problem. It's the way history has been taught in British schools ever since the advent of the schools history project in the 1970s and the rejection of historical knowledge in favour of "source analysis" and "child-centered" learning ("Imagine you are a Roman centurion …").
Only someone living in a dreaming Oxonian spire could be unaware of how badly this has turned out, despite the best efforts of thousands of hard-working teachers. I know because I have watched three of my children go through the English system, because I have regularly visited schools and talked to history teachers, and because (unlike Evans and Priestland, authors of rather dry works on, respectively, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia) I have written and presented popular history.
The new national curriculum is not flawless, to be sure. It runs counter to the advice I gave Gove by being much too prescriptive. The 34 topics to be covered by pupils between the ages of seven and 14 already read a bit like chapter titles and, if there is one thing I hope we avoid, it is an official history textbook (even if it's written by Simon Schama).
But to caricature it as an unfunny version of 1066 and All That is the kind of disingenuous misrepresentation of a document that Richard Evans would denounce as professional misconduct if he were not the historian doing it.
Among other things, the national curriculum explicitly aims to ensure that all pupils "know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires"; that they "understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance"; and that they "understand how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims".
At key stage 1, children will be introduced to "basic concepts" such as nation, civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace. At key stage 2, they will study the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. As for "the essential chronology of Britain's history", to which Evans and Priestland object so strongly, it is a model of political correctness: not only Mary Seacole makes the cut, but also Olaudah Equiano – hardly escapees from Our Island Story.
Quite why the professors feel obliged to defend a status quo that so many teachers, parents and pupils agree is indefensible I cannot work out. Is it sheer ignorance? Or partisan prejudice?
Surely they can't sincerely think it's acceptable for children to leave school (as mine have all done) knowing nothing whatever about the Norman conquest, the English civil war or the Glorious Revolution, but plenty (well, a bit) about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement?
This national curriculum isn't perfect, but it's a major improvement. It's supposed to be a "framework document for consultation". At least we now know two people Gove need not consult.