The Books Interview: David Cannadine

Your book The Right Kind of History examines the teaching of history in English schools in the 20th century. How would you summarise what you found?
It was interesting to notice that a lot of the arguments that are made now about the teaching of history - should it be a cheerleading narrative; should it be a more critical account of the nation; should it be about this nation or the nations of the world; is it about knowledge or skills? - have been around for as long as history as a subject has been around.

In a sense, that's no surprise. I think it may be that the teaching of history has been more controversial than the teaching of other subjects.

Why do you think that is?
Presumably, geometry in Vancouver or Rio de Janeiro or Perth is the same subject and French and physics and economics are the same subjects. Whereas what's different about history - and this also may be true of literature as the other exception - is that there isn't a global syllabus on which most people are sort of agreed. The syllabus is actually about the country that you're in.

What about history teaching in universities? For a long time, Britain lagged behind Germany and France in this regard. Why
was that?

It has to do partly with how the purpose of university education in England, up until the Second World War, certainly at Oxbridge and to some degree in London and at the red-brick universities, was to train and qualify people to serve Church and state.

It was meant to train people to govern an empire, to run the Church of England, to be lawyers, rather than to push forward research in disciplines for its own sake. The aim was to provide a liberal education, so the notion that academics ought to do research is a relatively recent invention.

It's striking how unprescriptive the board of education was about the history syllabus in the first half of the 20th century.
There was this very strong view that it wasn't the job of the board to tell people what to teach. It was thought that that's what continental despotisms did. We didn't do patriotism or propaganda. It was left up to the teachers of the local authorities to decide.

Did that change with the introduction of the National Curriculum?
What's interesting about the National Curriculum is that it offers a lot of freedom. And quite a lot of the choices offered are similar to what was outlined in the 1920sand 1930s.

One of the regrettable things about the current discussion is the belief in certain quarters that the National Curriculum is the problem. I don't think that's true. The National Curriculum is well worked out in terms of providing a coherent account of history in this country. But it also tries
to ensure that this is balanced with other histories of other countries.

The bigger problem, as I say in the book, is that it stops at 14, when it should really go on until 16.

You point out how rare it is for an education secretary or president of the board of education to stay in the post for very long.
The average time in office is two years. It's hard to believe that governments take education seriously if they're always switching people around. It'll be interesting to see how long Michael Gove stays.

Gove has taken a close interest in how history is taught in schools. What do you make of him?
He's clearly interested in history as a major aspect of education. It's been claimed that he has enlisted me as an adviser. I certainly hope that he thinks this book offers a lot of useful advice.

I am hopeful that what this book will persuade him of is that the National Curriculum in history is not the major problem. I am hoping it will persuade him that the major problem is that it needs to be made compulsory to the age of 16.

He is the person in charge of schools and education at the moment, so he is the person with whom we have to do business. If he wants any speeches about history in schools, I'd be very happy to write them for him.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
“The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in 20th-Century England" by David Cannadine, Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon is published by Palgrave Macmillan (£14.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?