London — The historical illiteracy of American schoolboys and girls is always a rich source of jokes for the late night television shows. Jay Leno or David Letterman can always astound his audience by reading the result of some study that shows a paucity of high schoolers knowing the identity of America’s first president or the century in which World War I was fought or some other fact that seems obvious to literate grownups. Or the late-night smart alecks will go out on the street and interview a pedestrian about who is buried in Grant’s tomb or some other joke of history. His audience will guffaw even if the guffawers are equally in the dark. Americans’ ignorance of history is alternately amusing and alarming. Without a knowledge of history Americans are always susceptible to the deceptions of passing demagogues.
Al Sharpton can hold up almost any canard about race and it will go unchallenged. Opponents of a strong foreign policy can claim anything they want about, say, the war in Vietnam, and only a handful of Americans will know enough to refute them with the truth. Yet there are more reasons to teach history well in the schools than merely protecting American schoolchildren from ridicule and the citizenry from political charlatans. Right here in London there is a fellow intent on improving the teaching of history in Britain, and do you know who he is? He is the Prince of Wales, and he may have the ear of Charles Clarke, Britain’s education minister.
Prince Charles is known for his campaigns to improve Britain as well as for his lady friend Camilla Parker Bowles. Years ago he went on a tear against modern architecture, disparaging its tastelessness and ultimately its soullessness and rootlessness — its dehumanizing effect on the citizens that perambulate around it. “The Prince is often a decade ahead of his time,” the English historian Andrew Roberts tells me over a very good dinner in Mayfair. His campaign against modern architecture now has an important following and the day may come when steel and glass will be replaced by stone and the ornamentation that makes buildings civilized.
I doubt it will take a decade for his campaign to improve the teaching of history to gain an important following. Historical writing is very popular with British readers. Such popular historians as Roberts, Paul Johnson and Simon Schama are best sellers and often invited to appeal on British television.
The Prince’s plan for improving the teaching of history in schools is to conduct “summer schools” at which distinguished historians discuss the proper teaching of history with the country’s history teachers. Roberts attended one a week ago and iterated the Prince’s concern that history be taught with an eye for facts, for chronology, and for lively narrative. Roberts was in the company of such other distinguished British historians as Niall Ferguson and Schama. Schama had a trendier view of teaching history but Roberts and Ferguson made the case for teaching history the old-fashioned way with fact and story telling. Ferguson went so far as to urge that the stories taught in British schools be exciting. For instance, he urged the British students again be taught the history of the British empire, a history that was discontinued in the 1960s, out of concern that it was too Anglocentric.
Writing in last week’s Sunday Times Ferguson reminded his readers that when students are properly taught history they develop a “sense of civic responsibility.” And sounding a bit like Prince Charles he added that to be ignorant of history is to be “rootless and intellectually impoverished.” Ferguson went on to quote from a report that the Prince’s summer school produced on teaching history. History should impart a “sense of continuity,” have lively and “rich narrative,” and delineate “maps of the past.” It should encourage “an awareness of …spiritual, cultural, moral, and social issues.” Obviously such history would not be dominated by the trendy PC enthusiasms that oppress young minds on both sides of the Atlantic.
Prince Charles’s public relations experts have made heavy weather of it over the past decade. It is unfortunate that his spin doctors can not do better. Friends of mine who know him tell me the Prince of Wales is bright and thoughtful. His interest in architecture and history suggests as much. I wish him luck in this latest campaign. Perhaps he could do the princely thing and bring it to our shores.