A nation needs a narrative

And children need an intellectual hinterland, a shared infrastructure of the mind; and that should include a basic knowledge of English history.  Not some thin gruel of cod-sociology, of the kind that has been imposed on our schools by the left-wing academic educationalists, but a real and gripping story of the real people who made England what it was, and what it is.  Like it or not, history is made by great leaders, great men and women, and great deeds.  If in doubt, just read again the speech which Queen Elizabeth 1st made to her troops at Tilbury before the Spanish Armada in 1588.

With unprecedented levels of immigration, we can hardly expect newcomers to integrate and to adopt our values if they have no idea who we are.  And unless our own children know where we come from, they too will not know where they are, or where they’re going, or why it matters.

I was struck by a recent news report suggesting that the great majority of children have no idea who the man is on top of Nelson’s column, but many hazarding a guess came up with …. Nelson Mandela! They simply know nothing about the greatest naval commander of all time, the towering British hero of two hundred years ago, Horatio, Admiral Lord Nelson.  And as for the Roman Horatio, in whose honour Nelson was presumably named, no doubt he is as far from their awareness as the Neanderthals.

I find that those of my generation have, at least in some measure, a shared knowledge of key texts, of the Bible, and Shakespeare, and Dickens, and the great poets.  Familiar quotations form part of the bric-à-brac, the small change, of a well-stocked mind.  Yet they are largely unfamiliar to the younger generation — even to the sort of very bright and well-educated young people who come to work as assistants in the European parliament.

Perhaps Michael Gove should bring back Lord Macaulay, and his Lays of Ancient Rome, as a required text in our schools.  With its wonderful drama and narrative, it achieves accessibility and emotional engagement at a level which gives the reader a tingle down the spine and a tear in the eye.  It is literature and history welded together.  Who is not moved by the story of how brave Horatius kept the bridge?  “For how can a man die better than when facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods?” Yet today’s teenagers probably would not recognise the line “Even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forebear to cheer”, and Tuscany probably means no more to them than a holiday destination popular with Tony and Cherie.

To Michael Gove’s credit, however, he is calling for a complete overhaul of school teaching of history, and has asked advice from historian Niall Ferguson. 

But for those concerned that their children or grandchildren should know more about our history, and perhaps unwilling to wait until Gove’s reforms deliver, let me recommend “Our Island Story”, by  H.E. Marshall, first published in the Edwardian twilight in 1905, before the word “sociology” had been invented.  It has been bravely republished recently (2005) by Civitas and Gore Park Publishing.  This book has been commended to me a couple of times by my good colleague Dan Hannan, but I’ve been a bit dilatory about sending for it.  Now I have it.   My copy is destined for my grandsons, but I’ve been flicking through the pages in the meantime.

Ironically, Michael Gove’s advisor Niall Ferguson is on record as saying that he is against re-imposing an “Our Island Story” approach to the history curriculum.  This is a shame, because it is a rather good and engaging approach.

The book makes no attempt to provide a complete account or analysis of English history.  Designed for children, it takes key events — iconic events — from British history, and presents them as exciting short stories — with illustrations apt to the tales, and in the style of 1905.  We have Boadicea (and no revisionary nonsense about Boudicca).  We have Alfred and the cakes; Hereward the Wake; the White Ship; Thomas à Beckett; The Field of the Cloth of Gold; Drake playing at bowls on Plymouth Ho! and thumbing his nose at the Armada; and of course, the great Admiral Lord Nelson.  Each story is told in a few pages, suitable for bed-time reading for children, and guaranteed to excite a life-long interest in our history.

There will be cynics and curmudgeons and kill-joys who will point out the inaccuracies.  In all probability, Alfred never burned any cakes, and Robert the Bruce never watched a spider.  Probably the story of Drake and the game of bowls is apocryphal.  But to complain in those terms is to miss the point.  These stories are part of our national narrative; part of the heritage and birthright of every Englishman (and woman).  They may not be historically accurate, but in a deeper and mythic sense they are true, and our children and grandchildren deserve to share them.

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8 Responses to A nation needs a narrative

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A nation needs a narrative « Roger Helmer MEP -- Topsy.com

  2. Heather Alibakir says:

    It seems to me that consequent upon this gap in historical teaching,many people born in the last two generations lack nobility of spirit in its widest sense, including dignity, compassion and humility. Sadly, doing good and being kind have become fads and pop’ victims of the human rights fashion. Protesting and helping the underdog is for legislation and not the responsibility of individuals.

  3. If only our country’s militant teaching unions would accept these fundamental truths, regarding how our history should be taught? Michael Gove is certainly trying to move history teaching in this direction, so that should be welcomed. As Roger suggests, the real-life and lasting implications of key historical events should never be neglected (or downplayed) in any way. Whilst Sir Francis Drake may not have waited to complete that famous game of bowls, his alleged behaviour demonstrated the perceived “Britishness” of keeping calm in the face of adversity. Therefore, character strengths such as this should be properly acknowledged in a modern teaching curriculum (along with Christian values).

  4. Gail Wharmby says:

    Well said! I enjoyed history at school (about the only one I did enjoy). We started with the amoebas and went forward. I also think that the way our children are taught has a lot to do with how well they get on at school. A boring teacher means a bored child and they won’t learn anything. That’s why I am no good at maths, geography and art.

  5. Heather Alibakir has also made some very good points, regarding modern society as a whole. As she suggests, the “human rights” agenda has been exploited as a supposed alternative to moral values and genuine concern for our fellow human beings. Sadly, this “fashion” approach to morality continues to damage our society (and others throughout the world), whilst individual responsibility is downplayed or neglected. Always, societies should seek to apply a legislative and democratic system which enforces the application of moral values – and requires that citizens accept personal responsibilities too.

  6. Leon Cych says:

    What a load of unsubstantiated piffle and cod barroom opinion based on absolutely no research.I’d remind people that “1066 and all that…” was a response to Our island Story. All those things are taught in History lessons already up and down the country. You are maligning people and systems based on anecdote. As usual, “Straight Talking” is merely grandstanding without substance.

  7. Stephen Gash says:

    Michael Gove, a Scot, is education Secretary for England who has no say on Scotland’s education.

    Niall Ferguson, a Scot, is his adviser.

    As you are keen on straight talking Mr Helmer, how about England having an English Parliament?

    The Welsh are getting a vote in May, on elevating their assembly to a full parliament. The English, once again, are excluded from the devolution debate.

    A referendum on an English Parliament could be accommodated in May’s council elections in England.

    Or are you going to talk straight and explain why you don’t think we English should be treated as equals in this laughably named United Kingdom?

    You say “A nation needs a narrative” well the British Establishment does not even recognise England as a nation. As the Welshman and former United Kingdom Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott wrote, “There is no such nationality as English”.

  8. Barry (The Elder) says:

    Perhaps Mr Helmer might like to know that the campaign for an English Parliament wrote to over 600 schools in England extolling the virtues of teaching English History in English schools but alas only a few replies came back. The problem for English schools is that the history curriculum is decided by British Establishments backed by the British Govt, who in thier wisdom or lack of it decide that the curriculum has a British base. Children are not taught about how England herself came to be or how the English peasants were under the Norman yoke or indeed that England was a poor country when Elizabeth the 1st came to the throne but she turned England into one of the richest countries in Europe, there is so much more. The point being is that English history will not be taught in schools whilst the British establishment has a hold on the curriculum, what is needed is a forum for English matters in the form of an English Parliament free of British interference

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