Is This ‘Why History Still Matters’?

‘Why history still matters’ – that’s the title (in the paper at least) of a piece by Simon Schama in the Guardian’s g2. There’s an online version here.

‘Whatever else gets cut in this time of nicks and scrapes, incisions and mutilations’, begins the article by the coalition government’s new adviser on the teaching of history, ‘the cord of our national memory had better not be among the casualties. For even during the toughest trials it’s our history than binds us together as a distinctive community in an otherwise generically globalised culture.’

Schama argues passionately, poetically almost – ‘The seeding of amnesia is the undoing of citizenship‘ – for a teaching of history that covers more than the Henrys and Hitler, that embraces Europe and the non-western world, and that develops the telling of stories.

He also ‘sets out six of the key events no child should miss out on’:

  • Murder in the cathedral, and the showdown between religion and the royals
  • The black death and the peasants’ revolt
  • The execution of King Charles I: ‘How did Britain get from a country that revered its monarch to one that cut off his head?
  • The Indian moment: ‘How was it that a country throwing its weight around the world’s oceans got kicked out of most of America but in two generations came to rule an immense part of the subcontinent?’.
  • The opium wars and China
  • The Irish wars

It does feel as if the world only comes into play when Britain brings into play. But that’s part of the argument here – a national narrative which unites those of diverse backgrounds. ‘A truly capacious British history will not be the feeder of identity politics but its dissolvent’, says Schama.

I thrill to so much of what Schama says – the central importance of learning about the past, the need to protest history’s place in the school curriculum, the emphasis on understanding  the tensions and conflics that have moulded the modern world. Yet I feel queasy about his assimilationist-style underpinnings. Is the teaching of history principally about instilling a common identity – to help kids ‘grasp what it means to be British today‘?

I feel a little cheated. The subject is being suborned for an agenda I don’t recognise as mine.


  1. What on earth does your site mean by “progressive history”? If you mean left wing, say left wing and call a spade a spade. At least it will put fatuous comments such as “The subject is being suborned for an agenda I don’t recognise as mine” in a proper context.

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