Gervase Phinn: History in the making

I was reminded recently of a story once told by a colleague, a school inspector of history. He inquired of a child if he knew where Hadrian's Wall was and back came the reply, "around Hadrian's garden". I was speaking at the Scottish Borders Literary Festival and in my audience was Euan, a young man of 11. When I asked him the self-same question, he proceeded to give me a detailed account of this amazing construction.

"It's the largest monument in Britain, built over 10 years by more than 30,000 men using more than 24m stones."

I was, as we say in Yorkshire "gob smacked". When I asked him how he knew all this, he replied: "My teacher's pretty good at history."

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Well, my teacher was pretty good at history, too. Mr Theodore Firth (Theo) was a stout, red-cheeked man with tufts of sandy-coloured hair at the side of an otherwise bald head and a roar like a lion and a stare like the sweep of a scythe. He was the archetypal Yorkshireman – bullish, plain-speaking, lacking in sophistication, a no-nonsense sort of man who could put the very fear of God into his pupils. But he developed in me a deep love of, and a fascination for, British history. Young people these days clearly know a great deal more than I did at school; they seem more adventurous, outspoken and sophisticated, but many I have met on my visits to schools don't have the grasp of British history and knowledge of important historical dates that I had at their age.

One reason for this is that history, when I was a lad, had a much higher status in the curriculum and was compulsory for all, but, more importantly, I had a teacher who brought the subject to life. At primary school, I undertook projects about the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Vikings and the Normans. At secondary school, I started on the captivating journey of discovery through the history of England and then Great Britain, learning about significant events and famous characters, important treaties and world-changing wars.

Now pupils choose their options, and after 14, it may be the case that they never study history again.

This lack of historical knowledge in the young is borne out by the recent survey by Dr David Matthews, of Cardiff University. He gave undergraduates a simple history test. Only 16 per cent knew that the Duke of Wellington was the general in charge of the British Army at Waterloo, and only 10 per cent could name a 19th-century prime minister. I commend Nick Gibbs, the Schools Minister, who believes that young people should have knowledge of the past and learn about kings and queens, Prime Ministers and inventors, important battles and great historical events. I told young Euan, at Melrose, how I recalled my history teacher's description of the battle of Culloden, how the ill-equipped and bedraggled clansmen were dragged from their homes in feudal observance to their chieftains to follow Bonnie Prince Charlie. Armed with only claymores and farming implements, they met the long ranks of heavily-armed, disciplined, English redcoats who knocked them over like ninepins "Aye," said the boy, sagely, "I need to put you right about Culloden."

YP MAG 4/9/10