Professor Pangloss

Richard Evans's reputation as one of the finest academic historians of his generation is well deserved. As a Cambridge professor, though, he naturally sees only the best and brightest of each generation, which perhaps explains his Panglossian outlook. But not everything in the garden is as rosy as his article suggests.

What he does not mention, for example, is that the study of history is becoming increasingly concentrated in private schools, grammar schools and comprehensives in affluent areas, while the poorest and most deprived students in the country are shut out. In 2010, for example, less than 30 per cent of comprehensive-school students were entered for GCSE history, compared with 48 per cent of their counterparts in private schools and 55 per cent of those in grammar schools. Indeed, in some of the most deprived areas of the country, history seems in danger of dying out. In Leicester, for example, 1,638 people took A-levels in 2010, yet only 68 emerged with history passes. And in Knowsley, Merseyside, an area of high poverty and unemployment, only 11 out of 2,000 pupils took A-levels in history last year, just four of whom passed. To put that into context, a teenager from Knowsley is a staggering 46 times less likely to leave school with a history A-level than one in Professor Evans's home town of Cambridge.

Some readers may not think that matters, but I do. For good or ill, British culture still places an unusually high value on knowledge of the humanities. Rightly or wrongly, a student at Professor Evans's college would readily be forgiven for not knowing the third law of thermodynamics, but one who did not know who won the Battle of Trafalgar, or who could not name one of Henry VIII's wives, or who did not know the date of the French Revolution, would be looked on as a dimwit. By shutting so many poor students out of the study of history, the current system is selling them short.

Professor Evans also sets up what strikes me as an entirely false dichotomy between the current syllabus, on the one hand, and some kind of top-down, kings and queens, old-fashioned Whiggish history on the other. In reality, though, he is flailing away at an Aunt Sally. Nobody, or at least nobody sensible, thinks that British schoolchildren should sit meekly in rows while some modern-day Gradgrind drills them in the dates of the battles of the Wars of the Roses. But the fact remains that too many students - like many of those I used to teach at Sheffield - arrive at university with only a very hazy sense of their own history.

They may be clever, enthusiastic and well taught but their syllabus has often left them with great gaps in their knowledge. Perhaps some Cambridge students are different; but not, I suspect, all of them.

I certainly don't think students should be taught pure Whiggish narrative, or that their teachers should use Henrietta Marshall's Our Island Story. But there is surely a middle ground: a way of teaching that would enable pupils to develop their critical thinking while also acquiring a stronger sense of chronology. It is tricky, after all, to think critically about something when you have only the flimsiest idea of what happened and when.
Finally, Professor Evans has written elsewhere that "British children of South Asian or Afro-Caribbean background" should be taught, not about British history, but about "the history of the Mughal empire, or of Benin or Oyo". Can he really believe this? Does he seriously think that British schoolchildren should be divided into two classes, some learning about, say, the civil war and the Industrial Revolution; the others studying exclusively those countries from which their ancestors came? He seems perilously close to arguing that pupils should only be taught those topics that their politicians consider "relevant". That way lies disaster.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

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