The History Business

     I see from today’s newspapers that the British Government is proposing a change in the way history is taught in school, by which they mean abandonment of the Pick’n’Mix Method and a return to teaching in chronological sequence. White males are to be included in the curriculum again too, before we reach the point where no-one remembers who the Duke of Wellington was, or Horatio Nelson.

I welcome the proposal. My own children were exposed to the module-based method of teaching history, which meant they learned a lot about the Battle of the Somme and bugger all about anything else. And since their schooldays, in the Eighties, things have only gotten worse. It has become axiomatic that to qualify as a heroic historic figure you have to have been female and/or non-white. The apotheosis of this politically correct trend has been Mary Seacole.

Now Mary Seacole was an interesting woman who never allowed her sex or her race to stop her doing anything she wanted to do. I’ve actually written about her tangentially in the novel I’m just finishing. But the attention she now attracts is out of all proportion to her achievements, and of course she’s completely bumped Florence Nightingale off her pedestal (too rich and privileged for the history-tweakers). A heroine? I don’t think so. She was no Churchill. Remember Churchill? Today’s children won’t.

Once a month, usually on the 11th, I contribute to a blog called The History Girls. There are 28 of us, plus a couple of guest-bloggers each month, and I’m one of its more ancient contributors, if not the oldest . Our topics are wide-ranging  – you never know from one day to the next what’s going to turn up – but I’m conscious of a slight nod towards feminist  and post-colonial themes. That’s how younger writers view the world these days. Sometimes I feel I’ve woken up in a landscape I don’t recognise. A younger generation would probably say, ‘and about time too.’

But I cleave firmly to 1066 and all that. I won’t mind my grandchildren learning about Mary Seacole as long as they learn about King Alfred first. Now there was a hero. They’ll get some in-filling from me: Richard III, Horatio Nelson, and various other personal obsessions. But I’ll be looking to their schools to give them the groundwork, the dates, the dynasties. Because what’s the point of doing the Henry VIII module if you don’t know how those Tudor bastards ever got to be a going concern? You could end up getting Anne Boleyn mixed up with Natalie Portman.


  1. elizabeth dunn on January 10, 2013 at 8:45 am

    You crack me up. Cleave firmly to 1066!! I love Alfred too. I find it hard to believe you’re the oldest in the History Girls line up.

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