The strange death of historical knowledge

Churchill was a TV advert dog; the Battle of Bosworth was in the First World War; history is bunk. Or is it?

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. Do not expect young people to know too much about it. Research recently commissioned by SSAFA, the armed forces’ charity, indicates that many young people, so-called millennials, know much less about it than their parents and grandparents.

Asked whose assassination triggered the outbreak of war, only 45% could correctly identify the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. 6% thought it was President Kennedy. As to whom Britain fought against, a quarter thought it was Russia and 19% plumbed for…France. 42% identified Winston Churchill as our wartime prime minister and three quarters were unable to name the monarch. Almost one in ten thought it was George VII. 68% did not know were the ‘home front’ was to be found. Nor could 58% identify the country (France) in which the Battle of the Somme was fought. Asked to name an historic event during the World War One, Pearl Harbour was the choice of 16%, with the Battle of Hasting attracting a 7% vote.

Asked whose assassination triggered the outbreak of war, only 45% could correctly identify the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. 6% thought it was President Kennedy.

Sadly, there are few, if any, surprises in this survey. Several polls in recent years have pointed in the same direction. Back in 2012 a YouGov poll for the UK-based charity and think tank, British Future, discovered that, with regard to World War One, only 46% of 16-24 year olds knew when it started and just 40% were aware of when it finished. Equally, if not more pitiful, was the finding that three quarters of the young people questioned did not know that Passchendaele – the Third Battle of Ypres, where the casualties were around 325,00 for the Allies and 260, 000 for the Germans – was a First World War battle. The contribution of the Empire and Dominions was also a mystery to many 16-24 year-olds. 60% had no knowledge of Indian, Australian or Canadian participation in the war. 13%, however, identified Germany’s ally, Ottoman Turkey, as fighting on the British side. Worse, 11% thought that the Battle of Bosworth (in 1485) was a First World War battle.

A tenth of the 16-24 year-olds reckoned that the total number of British and Commonwealth troops killed during the war was less than 10,000. This figure actually represents about half of those killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Total casualties across the war, on the British and Commonwealth side, were some 1.1 million.

The demise of historical knowledge covers far more than World War One. It hasn’t happened overnight. Back in 2003 a survey revealed that 30% of 11-18 year-olds thought that Oliver Cromwell fought at the Battle of Hastings; a similar number could not name the century in which the First World War was fought. Under half of the 200 children questioned knew that Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar was the Victory.

In August 2004, prior to its Battlefield Britain series, the BBC issued a press release headed: “Alexander the Great won the Battle of Hastings. Gandalf defeated the Spanish Armada. The Battle of Britain was a turning point in the 100 Years War. The Romans never invaded Britain.” It went on to explain that a survey it had commissioned on landmark events in British history revealed the older generation are far more clued up on their history than the supposedly sharper 16 to 44 age groups.

Amongst 16-34 year-olds, a third could not spot the victor in the Battle of Hastings from these five options: (a) Napoleon (b) Wellington (c) Alexander the Great (d) William the Conqueror (e) Don’t know. Half of this younger generation did not know that the Battle of Britain happened during the Second World War. Almost half could not connect Sir Francis Drake to the battle against the Spanish Armada, naming instead Gandalf, Horatio Hornblower or Christopher Columbus. 71% of over-65s knew that the famous battle marked every year on 12 July by the Orangemen in Northern Ireland is the Battle of the Boyne. In contrast, this was known by only 18% of 16-24 year-olds. 15% of these youngsters thought the Orangemen were celebrating the victory at Helms Deep, the fictional battle in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

407 hastings nelson

In October 2004, Channel 4 published a poll it had commissioned to accompany its TV series on the history of the monarchy. It found that only 10% of 15-24 year-olds could connect King John to Magna Carta. More than half did not know that Windsor is the official name of the royal family. Just 16% knew that James was the name of the first monarch to sit on the thrones of England and Scotland at the same time. A mere 26% of these youngsters knew the identity of the king who was executed after the Civil War. Only 34% knew that Queen Victoria was, at the time, our longest serving monarch. This survey of nearly 2000 people showed that 15-24 year-olds were far less likely than older people to know the correct answer.

Another survey, published in 2009, showed that a lack of knowledge extends to able undergraduates. Derek Matthews, Professor of Economic History at Cardiff University, was so concerned about the downgrading of knowledge in school history lessons that over three years (2006, 2007, 2008) he tested the basic historical knowledge of his British educated new first year social-science undergraduates at this Russell Group university. These students were probably in the top 15% of their age group for educational attainment. He posed five basic questions relating to landmark events and personalities of British history. They were, he said: “the easiest history questions I could think of, and what I considered any well-educated 18-year-old should know.”

The results below show the percentage of correct answers:

1. Who was the general in charge of the British army at the battle of Waterloo? 16.5%

2. Who was the reigning monarch when the Spanish Armada attacked Britain? 34.5%

3. What was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s profession? 40.5%

4. Name one prime minister of Britain in the 19th century? 11.5%

5. In what country was the Boer War of 1899 to 1902 fought? 30.6%

In his report Professor Matthews recounted how students in a typical tutorial had never heard of the Reformation and did not know what was meant by the term ‘Protestant’. He said: “This implies that, all things being equal, 85% of my undergraduates’ age group knows even less than they do. In other words, we are looking at a whole generation that knows almost nothing about the history of their (or anyone else’s) country…This is an outrage and should be intolerable.”

On 7 October 2011 The Daily Mail carried this headline: “Oh no, no, no, no, no! Teenage pupils believe Winston Churchill is TV advert dog.” Its story, widely reported, was based on the experience of Katharine Birbalsingh, an experienced London deputy head teacher who had addressed the 2010 Conservative Party Conference. In Spring 2014 Ofsted’s ‘Lead Inspector for History’ reported that knowledge was continuing to decline: “Pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the topics studied is not as good as it was at the time of Ofsted’s last subject report [2011].” The recent surveys regarding young people’s knowledge of World War One has shown that, if anything, the decline of historical knowledge, especially amongst young people, has continued.

In 2010 the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, told an American television audience that the British “were the junior partners in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis.” 

What has gone wrong? Even senior politicians and civil servants these days appear afflicted by ignorance. In 2010 the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, told an American television audience that the British “were the junior partners in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis.” He seemed unaware that the US was not even a participant in the Second World War until December of the following year. The Guardian reported how, subsequently, Cameron was berated by an angry pensioner who told him: “You denigrated your own country.” Eton-educated Cameron was unable to do much better a couple of years later on another US television interview, when he was unable to answer this question: “The literal translation of Magna Carta is what?”

Nor can politicians on the political left claim exemption from ignorance when it comes to historical knowledge. Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, told the BBC that: “The earliest blacks in Britain were probably black Roman centurions that came over hundreds of years before Christ.” Given that Christ died around AD 33, a decade before Claudius’s conquest began and less than a century after Julius Caesar’s two ‘invasions’, her ignorance is remarkable; more so, given that she read history at Newnham College, Oxford.

Ignorance has even entered the highest echelons of the Foreign Office. On the Queen’s birthday earlier this year, Sir Simon McDonald, head of the Diplomatic Service, was on a visit to Amritsar in the Punjab. He tweeted: “At the Queen’s birthday party, presented with picture of The Queen at Golden Mosque in Amritsar in 1997, a permanent memento for Deputy High Commission’s wall.” Does the identity of the Sikh homeland matter? Was he not aware of the historical sensitivities associated both with the Golden Temple not being a mosque and the 1919 Amritsar Massacre?

The death of historical knowledge is no accident. It has come about as a consequence of educational policy. The introduction of a National Curriculum via the 1988 Education Reform Act in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Scotland’s 2010 Curriculum for Excellence, were the turning points. Well-intentioned educational zealots hijacked the educational reins of power. They decided that historical knowledge was too inert and too associated with flag-waving patriotism. It had to go.

Far better, it was decreed, for children to ditch knowledge in favour of so-called skills. These skills are based on the notion that all history is provisional and are supposed to equip pupils with the ability to construct history for themselves, and to deconstruct existing narratives. They focus heavily on the evaluation of evidence. If necessary,  teachers are free to go as far as faking evidence in order to teach the skills because it is the skills that matter, not factual knowledge. One of the most widely used secondary school history textbooks, Minds and Machines 1750-1900 ( from Longman, which is owned by Pearson, former publisher of the Financial Times), reprinted several times and part of a series, makes this explicit: “…we have tried to imagine what they would tell us if they were to come back from the dead.”

The only thing that is unique about history as a subject is that it is an account of the past.

In fact, the only thing that is unique about history as a subject is that it is an account of the past. Everything else related to the subject is cross-curricula and it is the cross-curricula elements, the skills that are, largely, taught in schools. This goes some way towards explaining the level of ignorance about our past that is so prevalent amongst many of the younger generation.

406 dementia clinic

Too many teachers choose subject matter based on how effective it is for teaching these skills. Jack the Ripper is one of the most popular 19th century topics in the classroom because it lends itself to the skills-based notion of history as detective work. It has around two hundred and fifty model lessons on the Times Educational Supplement (TES) website, alone. In contrast, Admiral Nelson generates only a handful.

What some Australians have described as the black armband approach to history also determines the choice of historical topics in the classroom. Evils perpetrated by the British Empire, for example are especially popular because they score highly in the political correctness stakes. The Minds and Machines 1750-1900 textbook informs pupils that if Princess Rani Lakshmi could come back from the dead she would inform us: “The British punished survivors by firing cannon balls though them at point blank range.”

The former education secretary, Michael Gove, described this style of history teaching as “trashing our past” but he did little to improve matters. As one of those advising him, I witnessed his collapse when confronted by the educational establishment. His revised version of England’s National Curriculum for History is now being taught in schools. While it includes British history, no specific personality or event from our national past event is prescribed. Both world wars, for example, are optional and listed only as “Examples (non-statutory)” that teachers “could” include in their teaching. In relation to British history, this is a free-for-all, Sex Pistols curriculum. Anything goes – Jack the Ripper for its sensationalism, and the sins of Empire in order to promote the cause of political correctness. In contrast, aspects of West African history, Islamic history and Mayan history have been placed on a statutory list, one of which must be taught.

The Department for Education might suggest that it is impossible to properly teach modern British history without covering the world wars. Its own 40 minute video pack commemorating V-E Day gives the lie to that suggestion. It was sent to every school in the country some years ago and perfectly illustrates the new knowledge-lite approach to history. It gave Churchill just fourteen seconds, in order to inform children that he lost the 1945 general election. According to the video that was the sum of his contribution to the second world war. At the same time the video emphasised that the war was “sexist”.

The 100th anniversary commemorations for the ending of World War One are just around the corner. In addition to recalling the sacrifices made we should, also, spare a moment to lament the death of so much historical knowledge. I am not the first to observe that, these days, ‘Lest we forget’ has become ‘Lest we remember’.