Wednesday, June 30, 2004

David Starkey pontificates

A report in The Independent on a speech by David Starkey at the Prince of Wales' summer school a couple of days ago.
The cult of the celebrity historian is destructive to the way the subject is approached in schools, the historian and broadcaster Dr David Starkey told a teachers' conference yesterday.
There was too much concentration on "new'' theories of history, rather than a basic knowledge and understanding of the past, Dr Starkey said.

When you see 'celebrity historian', don't you think immediately of people like Starkey and Schama on TV? (I did anyway) And since when did that kind of TV history involve much 'theorising'? But the first line is just misleading: Starkey is not in fact complaining about that kind of history (which is a shame: I had the 'celebrity historian shoots himself in the foot' header lined up in my head), according to the rest of the article. He's criticising history education in schools for spending too much time on 'theories' - by which I think is meant historiography - and skills, rather than on 'factual content'. (I took a look at some GCSE History revision resources like these at the BBC and it didn't seem at all 'content indifferent' to me. Too heavily focused on the 20th century perhaps, but that's another matter.)

The report immediately goes on to an example of a recent AS-Level question that he thinks 'insane': "discuss the role of Archbishop Cranmer in the formation of religious policy between 1534 and 1540".
Dr Starkey said: "I'd love to have seen the examiner's notes as to what was the right answer to the question, because there are only two people in the country who can answer that question, and one of them is standing here."

'The right answer'? If Starkey doesn't know that there is no 'right answer' to a question that begins 'discuss', we should probably be glad that he's no longer teaching university students. Now maybe that question is rather narrow in focus, but given how much has been written on the English Reformation over the years, it's probably perfectly doable.* If at least two historians (and what about historians in other countries?) have published on it, you certainly have a starting point for a discussion. But there's the problem for Starkey, isn't it? I can't help wondering if his ego is a little uncomfortable with the idea of mere A-level students criticising his work. The trouble is precisely that 'discuss' word. His whole point is that school students should not be discussing the ideas of historians, they should be acquiring facts (whatever those are: the thousands of published words on the question of what is a 'historical fact' strongly suggest that it ain't that simple).

"One of the reasons we have lost the debate is we stopped teaching the history of our nation and of our own culture properly," he said. "I'm not calling for 'our island story' and tub-thumping accounts of the British Empire, but we need to have a sense of history's importance and also that it can be fun."

Have we lost the debate? (Umm... Which debate?) (This is like Schama telling us that boring historians are turning people off history when the bookshops are full of both popular and serious history and sales are through the roof.) And then... why do we need to study British history a) to get history's 'importance' and b) for it to be 'fun'? Don't get me wrong: I'm a British historian by trade. I don't think it's of no importance. But there's a whole world out there, and I fail to see how anyone understands the significance of history properly if they only really know the history of one country. Besides, we learn our own national histories (however badly) all the time, through the news, from the people we mix with. You can't avoid it. It's much harder to learn other countries' histories that way.

The only reason to focus heavily on British history in British schools is if we're going to subject the 'bad' history, the myths, the easy but dodgy stuff that we learn out on the street to serious, sustained criticism: to make us better-informed, questioning citizens. But that's precisely what it seems Starkey doesn't want taught. He doesn't want children in schools taught the critical skills that are the whole point of discussing and evaluating sources - whether they be secondary or primary sources (Starkey doesn't even mention - or isn't reported as mentioning - what I think is one of the best trends in recent history education, the turn to using primary source material far more than was ever done when I was at school). Skills that have far wider application than studying history (or utilitarian employment uses).

'He told the teachers: "It is not your job to reflect the latest little bit of academic fashion."' Historians all go 'out of fashion'. Even David Starkey (although, by implication, he apparently thinks G R Elton is still in fashion. Hmm). But that's such a superficial way to express it. Historians don't just go out of fashion like clothes; their ideas are tested against evidence, debated, revised, superseded, because history is much more about the contestable 'why' and 'how' than the relatively easily verifiable 'what' and 'when'. 'Content' cannot be so easily separated from the historians who communicate it, any more than the past can be neatly and safely separated from the perspectives and priorities and hangups of those who study it.

My view is fairly simple: you cannot study 'content' properly if you don't learn the skills and tools with which to do it. But learning 'skills' and 'theories' divorced from context and content is useless. (I've become a little concerned about stand-alone historiography courses - students all too often seem to finish with no idea of what relevance all that boring stuff about dead historians has for the rest of the degree.) And this isn't something to be reserved for university level study. Why shouldn't teenagers get their teeth into Dr David Starkey?

Still, you can't help kinda liking the guy: An interview with Dr Rude.

* I would be concerned if the entire exam consisted of narrow-topic questions like this. I hope not.

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