The history man sees a lesson for the future from study of the past

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SIMON Schama, along with Michael Woods and David Starkey, is one of the pioneering British historians who has not only helped bring the past to life, but through television has reached the kind of audiences his predecessors could have only dreamed of.

But while Schama could be regarded as a celebrity in today's parlance, he is far more than a mere TV historian, entertaining the masses with historical anecdotes and storytelling, although he does this with aplomb.

He is a man steeped in historical knowledge. A history graduate from Cambridge University, he has taught at Oxford and Harvard. His first book, Patriots and Liberators, won the Wolfson History Prize, and over the past two decades his books and television programmes have covered such eclectic subjects as the French Revolution and Rembrandt.

He is perhaps best known for his compelling 15-part BBC documentary series A History of Britain, which explored the emergence of "Great Britain" from an Iron Age twilight through to the first half of the 20th-century. It was a period rife with political upheaval, war and the kind of episodes even the most creative of novelists would have struggled to have made up.

Ten years on from that landmark series, Schama was invited to the University of York to give a public lecture, not only on the impact that programme had, but on where our interpretation of history goes next.

As well as having the academic rigour needed to view history with a sense of detachment, Schama is passionate about his subject and it's one of the reasons why in the past he has been openly critical of the way the subject is taught in schools in this country.

Five years ago, he wrote: "The way history is currently taught in schools, jumping from Hitler to the Henrys, is like a nightmare vision of Star Wars, where you have episode four before you have episode one. The sense of going on a journey, of chronology and continuity, is incredibly important to the imagination."

It's a feeling shared by many both inside and outside the educational establishment and finally it looks like Schama may get a chance to work his magic.

He was recently appointed by Education Secretary Michael Gove to advise ministers on teaching history and the 65-year-old hopes to instill "excitement and joy" into the future curriculum.

"Unless children can be won to history, their imagination will be held hostage in the cage of eternal now: the flickering instant that's gone as soon as it has arrived," he says. "They will thus remain, as Cicero warned, permanent children, forever innocent of whence they have come and correspondingly unconcerned or, worse, fatalistic about where they might end up."

The idea of British history being a single story, one that is rich and colourful, is key to Schama's way of thinking. He recently set out his vision for history in schools.

"It's our history that binds us together as a distinctive community in an otherwise generically globalised culture. Mother Teresa and Lady Gaga are multinationals; Oliver Cromwell and Margaret Thatcher are peculiarly ours. In a headphone world where we get to privatise our brains, it's history that logs us on to MySpace," he wrote.

History is often more astounding than fiction and Schama wants to see this sense of amazement conveyed to youngsters at the earliest age.

"Reinvent the art and science of storytelling in the classroom and you will hook your students just as tightly," he says. "It is, after all, the glory of our historical tradition – again, a legacy from antiquity – that storytelling is not the alternative to debate but its necessary condition."

He says that history is about much more than just words on a page. "Images and text have often been at war in history books. Those that used illustrations were regarded as 'history-lite' and I always felt that was the wrong way round because they are just as important."

Certainly he was one of the historians who was quick to see the potential that television offered. "History, to me, is all about storytelling and the camera allows you to reach all ages and classes, it helps communicate the epic events of history to the imagination of the public."

Schama's fascination with history was evident from an early age. Born in 1945, the son of a textile merchant, he was brought up in London surrounded by memories of the Second World War. "During the Fifties there was still a hangover of Churchillian rhetoric. My father had endured the Blitz and I remember the sense of amazement that St Paul's had survived."

As well as being "dragged around castles" by his father, he immersed himself in historical novels by people like Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson. "At the age of eight, I wrote my first book about the Royal Navy with pictures of the Ark Royal, which, looking back, is perhaps an unusual thing for a young child to do," he says, laughing. Although perhaps it explains why he has become a virtuoso of history as literature.

A gifted pupil, Schama went on to study history at Christ's College, Cambridge, and became a fellow there and at Brasenose College, Oxford. He moved to Harvard University in 1980 and, since 1993, has taught history and art history at Columbia University. His books include Citizens (1989), Landscape and Memory (1995), Rembrandt's Eyes (1999) and the trilogy that partnered his A History of Britain TV series.

He contends that history is about more than battles and wars and used his Power of Art series to illustrate his point. Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath, Picasso's Guernica and The Slave Ship, by Turner, were among the historic works he focused on. "Art, like poetry, draws on our emotion and without it you can't appreciate what it is to be human, it has the ability to shock us out of our prosaic routine."

Schama was awarded the CBE in 2001 and now divides his time between lecturing, writing and making TV programmes. But as a historian, what does he make of the tranche of secret cables recently released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks? He believes they will be "a trove" for historians, both now and in the future. However, he questions the wisdom of making the information public. "It's a dangerous world and you do need confidentiality in diplomacy if people are going to trust you. I appreciate there are calls for greater transparency but at the same time does everything always need to be known?"

Our recent past is proof, if any was needed, that history shouldn't be taken lightly. "There was a brief moment of triumph for liberal capitalism following the collapse of communism in Europe, I never thought I would live to see the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But this been replaced by the rise of fundamentalism and jihad. There is no single event that will bring about the collapse of the planet but I think it may be damaged in an irreversible way that could circumscribe the rest of history," he says.

But while future historians may have to grapple with a different world, the questions they ask themselves are likely to remain constant. "The whole core of history is about putting yourself in other people's skin, and good history is an exercise in altruism properly spoken."

A subject for concern in our schools

Simon Schama is not the only one to have become concerned about history teaching in schools.

Earlier this year, David Dimbleby said the current history curriculum was less than impressive and television programmes were now filling the gaps in children's knowledge.

Research carried out by the Historical Association in September last year found that three out of 10 schools no longer taught history as a stand-alone subject in the first three years of secondary school.

A previous study by Ofsted also complained that after the age of 13, only one in three children studies history at all. The watchdog also raised concerns that the curriculum concentrated too heavily on aspects of English history, ignoring important events in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Europe.

The report came after it emerged that two out of five pupils thought Henry VIII had eight rather than six wives; half were unable to name the reigning monarch at the time of the Armada and only 36 per cent knew the exact dates of the First World War.

As the teaching of history comes under scrutiny, various schemes have already tried to reawaken children's interest. The national Sing Up campaign was launched to help youngsters recall key historical events by singing about them. It was hoped teachers would use the songs to help their pupils recall key historical events.