Martin Kettle is right to bemoan the failure to give English children an understanding of history (The English, bereft of history, have lost their self-respect, 13 December), but his cure is not the right one. A chronological account of English history will try, and fail, to cover too much ground and, with its inevitable emphasis on the “exciting” bits featuring kings and wars, will bore the child. I suggest that children would learn a great deal more, and find it more interesting, if they were to look at history thematically.
Themes could include: the development of civil society from early tribal groupings to western democracy and the adoption of legal institutions; the impact of religion, from the roots of different belief systems through the religious wars of different eras to the development of new systems of belief and non-belief in the 20th century; the nature of work, from simple agricultural to industrial and post-industrial; imperialism, from Persia and Rome to the British empire. Addressed thematically, history would be seen to have a context relevant to our own times. It would be of much greater interest to children, partly because it would be much more interesting to teach. It would also foster discussion and debate.
To those who would object that this approach would reduce even further the little that children know of English (or British) history when they leave school, I would point out that this knowledge would be acquired as an integral part of each theme. The civil war, for example, would be covered, from different but overlapping aspects, in the themes of civil society, religion and warfare.
• Martin Kettle seriously underestimates the degree of active hostility that exists among “English” people towards knowledge of the history of England. We are far from “neutral”, as he suggests. Having spent many years studying the history of this country, I have come to doubt whether one can speak about an English “nation” even existing any more. Nations only exist through collective memory, and this absence of national consciousness may be connected with the weakness of the sense of society in England, in contrast with Scotland, or other nations in Europe. I have no solutions to offer, but readers of the Guardian in particular need to think seriously about how inhabitants of this country who cannot claim other identities than “English” can be expected to feel any sense of belonging to a country that cannot even speak its name.
• Kettle concluded with the point that the “English need to learn their own history. It might surprise them” – and, provided the usual tripe about the empire, often the work of Niall Ferguson and his like, is excluded, it certainly would. The truth about British history and its so-called heroes is nothing like the myths Michael Gove and many MPs would like to see taught. Do they have in mind, for example, the land-grabbing, piracy, slavery and murder so often associated with the glorious days of empire? Perhaps they would prefer concentration camps from the Boer war, or the frequent famines in colonies like India and Ireland? Making the subject compulsory is certainly worthy of a debate, but so is the actual nature of the English history to be taught.
• As a Scot, I’m not as sanguine as Martin Kettle that my countrymen know their history. They may know who Edward I is, but this may well be down to the fact that he is referenced in the (unofficial) national anthem Flower of Scotland. But this itself is surely significant. Popular culture gives life to histories’ narratives. Expecting schools alone to do the job will not work if people see no relevance once they have left.
Fortunately the future is bright for popular engagement with English (and Commonwealth) history. Now more than ever we have the platforms to talk about our national stories. Not just through the curriculum, TV, journalism and events, as we can now engage in a two-way conversation through social media. In 2014-15 we have the 100th anniversary of the first world war and the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and, ably assisted by journalists like Martin and millions on Twitter and Facebook, these anniversaries will allow us all to engage with a new debate on their meaning in the present day.
• The year 2013 presents opportunities to recover lost English history, as the 1,000th anniversary of Æthelred Unraed’s flight to Normandy, and the brief kingship of the Sweyn, the Danish leader, are marked. The 500-year dominance of the House of Cerdic (the West Saxon line of kings) was broken and, as Saxon England imploded, the alliance founded between the exiled royal family and Duke Richard of Normandy set in motion the one event that we have no difficulty remembering. Up to 2066, each year will bring a 1,000th anniversary of an event, or set of circumstances, that made English history, post-1066, distinctively Norman.
Newport, Isle of Wight
• If the history of these isles in the 17th century seems neglected, is it because this was when we had a republic (all too briefly) and from when many freedoms we have today originated? One has only to read the late Lord Bingham’s book, The Rule of Law, to see how important that century was. Maybe it would give people too many dangerous ideas about freedom and the rule of law if there were more teaching about this century in schools.
Old Coulsdon, Surrey
• When I was at school, over 50 years ago, my history teacher would not deal with anything after 1713. He said it was current affairs.