Simon Schama’s pick of the historical pops

Simon Schama, advisor to the government, has outlined his vision of history in schools. Despite the bizarre claim that Hong Kong runs the world and some purple prose, it’s not as facetious as one might fear; certainly, in his choice of the six items that every child should learn, there’s a rebut to the Education Secretary Gove’s ridiculous notion of “our Island story.” Ireland, India, and even China are singled out as being of particular importance. (Of the opium wars he says “Victorian Britain using the royal navy to protect hard drug trafficking? True!” A nice jab at current policy.) And the monarchy features mainly as the execution of Charles I.

There have been objections, on twitter and in the comments to the article, that so much is missing. The reformation, the slave trade, the industrial revolution, the Palestine mandate, the founding of the Bank of England and the national debt; all these and more have been proposed as absolutely fundamental moments that children should be taught. And each of these is of great importance, and would expand the present anemic curriculum of ‘Henries and Hitler.’

But this is to simply continue what Schama has done, namely pick a hit parade of important phenomena. This is an impossible and restricting task. Impossible because the past just does not come down to six, ten or even a hundred pivotal moments. Restricting because it treats of phenomena that can be neatly encapsulated, bounded within dates, and discards the rest. Anything broader, which would be much of social history, is thereby marginalised. Women’s history is not reducible to nor encapsulated by female suffrage. It further narrows history down to ‘the past’, a separate and knowable object, without considering  the ways in which we preserve, remember and think about it. Yet all the topics suggested are quite obviously proposed due to their contemporary relevance.

If the curriculum needs some sort of historical ranking system, that’s got nothing to do with history, but the exigencies of the current educational system.

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