Horrible history teaching

Terry Deary, creator of the bestselling Horrible Histories books, launches an outspoken attack on those who believe that the aim of history teaching should be to ‘pump pupils full of facts’

A
a
-
A scene from the Children’s BBC Horrible Histories series, based on Terry Deary’

History teaching in schools is a mess, they tell me. The list of things the students don’t know seems to exceed the list of things they do know. “If it isn’t the Tudors or the Nazis then they haven’t a clue,” is a common complaint. “They don’t know what happened in 1066,” the traditionalists wail. “Only one 18-year-old in ten can name a single Victorian prime minister”, rails the Daily Mail, though it doesn’t go on to explain why knowing dead prime ministers matters.

“Levels of ignorance among the young are an outrage that should be intolerable,” blusters an indignant professor in the Mail’s story. It goes on to report that, “One student thought Martin Luther was an American civil rights leader!”

How did we arrive at this sorry state and who is to blame? The Mail has the answer. “Trendy teaching is ‘producing a generation of history numbskulls’.” Aha! There you have the answer. Blame the teachers! Now, I am no apologist for the teaching profession – I’ve gone on record many times to advocate sacking them all because the schooling system is an archaic and misguided concept that wastes around 15 precious years of our lives. But even I am appalled at this cheap targeting of teachers.

Mr Indignant Professor complains that, “We are looking at a whole generation that knows nothing about the history of their (or anyone else’s) country.” A generation? So, if there was ever a golden age for history teaching it was a ‘generation’ ago… when the National Curriculum was introduced. Is that a coincidence? Or is there a clue in that timing?

But teachers didn’t invent a compulsory schools system. It was created in 1870 by politicians, so don’t blame teachers for a failing system. And trendy teachers certainly didn’t invent the National Curriculum – it was created by Margaret Thatcher’s politicians. So how come no one is blaming the politicians? I do. And I’ve met the guilty.

Facts, facts, facts

A couple of years ago, I found myself on a televised political discussion, sharing a sofa with a very senior Tory politician. I outlined why I’m against the teaching of history in blocks of facts, and he told me I was quite wrong. He brought to mind Charles Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”

My part in the debate had been to suggest to Mr Tory Politician that history education should be valued for its understanding of human beings and human society. Schooling simply values the mindless accumulation of facts, because facts are ‘testable’, hence my opposition to schools.

I’ve sold 20+ million Horrible Histories books but I am not an historian. I’m a children’s author whose first aim is to engage the reader and provoke thought. Before that I was a professional actor and my drama tutor had a mantra for the teaching of drama, which I apply to history teaching. He said: “The aim of drama teaching is to answer one question, and one question alone: why do people behave the way they do?” For ‘drama teaching’ read ‘history’. For ‘drama teaching’ read ‘education’. The study of people.

But my political opponent in the television debate went on about how he read nothing but history himself. It was his passion. I was horrified. Before I tell you why, let me declare my prejudices so you can dismiss my opinions as the rants of a juvenile author (in both senses). Don’t worry, I’m used to it. I have absolutely no faith in politicians whatsoever. And I passionately oppose unearned privilege.

No laughing matter

So why was I horrified? Because this Tory politician had been a minister for education at the time when the National Curriculum was evolving. Mr Gradgrind in fiction is a comical character… Mr Gradgrind in charge of our schools simply isn’t funny. A man who, in my view, empathises with, and understands, the comprehensive school pupil the way I empathise with the Galapagos turtle. (And I don’t even know where Galapagos is.)

Horror of horrors. If the Tories win the next election (and it is a faint possibility) this dinosaur will be back to re-impose his crushing footprint on the schooling system, which is already failing miserably.

Anti-establishment

So you think it’s my prejudice speaking? Fine, excuse me if I remain outside of the schooling system. I write unashamedly populist history books, anti-establishment books not for use in schools. I aim to engage and entertain young readers while provoking them to think of the issues for themselves. Horrible Histories may look like lightweight trivia but I think the meanings beneath the stories are deep and significant.

If you don’t believe me I’ll show you some of the hate mail I get from the extreme right-wingers who appreciate just how subversive the books really are. They tell me my views that condemn the British empire are wrong because, “The British mostly invaded lands that were empty”. I would suggest they try telling that to the Tasmanians… were it not for the ‘fact’ the last native Tasmanian was wiped out within 60 years of the brave Brits arriving. But generally I don’t even attempt to argue with such ignorant prejudice.

It’s not the extremists like that who we really need to worry about. It’s the seemingly respectable politicians who will smile and tell you they’ll manipulate the schools system and pump your children full of historical facts if you will elect them. That’s why I despair of school history, because it is controlled from the top down, by the politicians who dictate the curriculum.

But, hey! At least more 18-year-olds will be able to name a Victorian prime minister, so that’s all right. Horrible history teaching indeed.

Terry Deary is the author of around 50 books in the Horrible Histories series, which also appears as a Children’s BBC television series


Go further

The debate continues: Andrew Marr voices his contrasting opinion here, while history teacher Nicolas Kinloch offers a third point of view.

What do you think? Join the debate on our forum.

Who's Horrible in History by Terry Deary and Martin Brown (Scholastic, October 2009)

Horrible Histories™: Terrible Trenches Exhibition is on at the Imperial War Museum until 31 October


This feature was first published in the October 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine