Monday, June 27, 2005

A new project

The sun is shining and it is time to start a new project, methinks. Well, there are only six or seven on the go at the moment.

A recent article in the Daily Telegraph by Lady Antonia Fraser reminded me of that old and valued friend, Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall, and the excitement of learning history as a story. Of course, as Lady Antonia, points out, many of our attitudes to what is important have changed or, actually, expanded. (Her own book on women in the seventeenth century is absolutely excellent and would not have been written at the time Henrietta Marshall’s volumes were produced.)

At the same time we have all been hearing of the hoo-hah about the Trafalgar re-enactment that eschews the words French, British and Spanish, and, for all one knows, the name Nelson as well, in favour of Red team and Blue team.

In no other country would this happen. Pace the egregious Adam Nicolson, talking of Trafalgar, its importance and the simple fact of who won it, is not “triumphalism”. It is simple knowledge of history, without which no civilized human being can truly exist.

The idea that somehow Europe can be united is usually advanced by people who really do not know very much about the Continent and, above all, its history. The idea that its countries can live in peace with each other is, as it happens, compatible with a knowledge of history, which is a tale of agreements and treaties as well as of battles and, even more interestingly, of economic and social developments that spread across borders.

No other country, I maintain, knows so little of her own history. This is not a particularly new development. I shall depart from my usual habit and write a little more personally.

I was fourteen when we arrived in this country and I went to school here. I had studied history in other countries and was stunned by the inadequacy of what passed for history in an extremely good grammar school that I went to. It was not the teacher’s fault, who was knowledgeable and enthusiastic. The syllabus was bizarre. We went up to the end of the eighteenth century in one year and started in 1815 the following. The French Revolution and its aftermath were simply not studied and the development of the modern world, whose story just sort of petered out, remained incomprehensible.

But, at least, we learned dates and events. We could piece the story together. This no longer happens. A young colleague in my other life (a.k.a day job) said to me recently that she had found history boring because it had made no sense.

She had been taught a course in the Industrial Revolution, another one in social welfare and something else that she had forgotten. None of it had made any sense, none of it could be put together into a coherent picture.

So, I come to my new project, still in its infancy. I am thinking of opening a private educational establishment, dedicated entirely to the teaching of British history, with additional courses on European, American and World history as and when these impinge. I think I could make a great deal of money even if I charge the absolute minimum amount, so that anyone could afford it. Any takers?

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