Jayne Dowle: When you teach history, don't forget all the people who helped to make it
He also says that children should be taught a narrative of history, rather than the current piecemeal approach, which he
calls "smorgasbord". David Cameron, campaigning before the General Election for better history teaching, called it "tapas". Bizarre culinary metaphors aside, another good point.
So many of us left school without the faintest idea of the big story. Anecdotal evidence suggests that despite years of curriculum reviews, little has changed. I have an O-level and an A-level in history, and could still draw you a diagram of Jethro Tull's seed drill. But I
didn't know much about the English Civil War until I was in my 20s, so the significance of that seed drill and the land was totally lost on me. And don't ask me to name England's kings and queens in order, because I can barely get past Queen Victoria.
My friend's teenage son can tell you everything about Hitler's foreign policy, but has no understanding of the economic forces which drove his own great-grandparents from Scotland to the coal-mines of South Yorkshire.
And this is where it gets contentious. Ferguson's approach is to impose an all-encompassing Western-centric view of the world. Speaking at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, he admitted that his big question is how the small warring kingdoms of Europe got to be so powerful.
He has secured a new television series, and plans to create teaching materials for a school syllabus on the "West and the world". So it looks like his revolution is already underway.
And this is where it not only gets contentious, but it gets me very cross. Other distinguished historians, including Antony Beevor, military historian and author of such distinguished tomes as Stalingrad, are weighing in to agree that children should be taught narrative history.
Fans of his books would concur – he certainly has a way with a story. But then, Mr Beevor (Winchester and Sandhurst), delivers the blow that should strike fear into every history enthusiast. Asked whether there is room for local history in this grand-sweep, he replied: "How far you go into the local weaving industry or iron industry – I'm sorry, I think that tends to be tourist history rather than real history."
Well, I'm sorry Mr Beevor. Here you are, given the chance to contribute to a complete overhaul of the teaching of history to our children. And what do you do? You dismiss everything that might interest and engage them as mere "tourist history".
Quite apart from the fact that "tourist history" generates millions of visitor pounds from the country houses and industrial sites of Great Britain, this is real history, the kind of history that sparks off connections and gets ordinary people excited.
The recent 70th anniversary of Dunkirk, about which I'm sure Mr Beevor knows a lot more than me, didn't register with my seven-year-old son until we drove through Pontefract to a football match. I pointed out that his great-grandma, a corporal in the ATS during the Second World War, worked in the kitchens at Pontefract Barracks and helped feed the exhausted soldiers when they arrived back in England.
His eyes widened. When we got home, we dug out some old photographs of her in uniform, and talked about other family members who served in the war, including his great-uncle, killed in Normandy at the age of 21.
Suddenly, history wasn't just elderly men on the television news. It
was part of Jack's life, something he could reach out and touch.
He's not interested in generals and strategy and ideas of Empire. But he might be, one day. And, if he is, it will be because he has an understanding of the human face of history. I've seen the faces, too, of children who are studying the Second World War at his school. When members of our local history group go in to talk to them, the gory boys always ask the old soldiers how many Germans they killed. But when talk turns to the day an enemy bomber dropped its load on Ward Green playing field by mistake, they are stunned into silence.
So I'd say to Ferguson, Beevor et al, teach our children a story, by
all means. But when you are thinking about how to teach it, remember that to them, their own stories, and the stories of their communities and their heritage, mean a lot more than all of your grand theories put together.
Local history isn't "tourist history"; it is the story of how our
country was built. The memories of linen-weavers and iron-smelters might not mean much to you in your ivory towers, but they mean the world to us, down here at the coal-face, even though the pits closed years ago.
When you're writing the big story, don't forget the little people who helped to make it.