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December 2011 – David Cannadine’s “The Right Kind of History”

Reviewed by:  Bryan S. Glass, University of Texas at Austin

David Cannadine et al.  Basingstoke:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 306 pp., £14.99 (paperback).

For most of the twentieth century, history education in Britain was a rather devolved exercise.  Whether in Scotland or England, local authorities and teachers determined what children should be taught.  Not until the National Curriculum was established in English state schools in 1988 did education in southern Britain achieve its greatest ever level of centralization.  This newest work by David Cannadine, Jenny Keating, and Nicola Sheldon recounts the story of history education in these schools since 1900.  The focus on state schools is meant to uncover what the vast majority of children were learning about the history of Britain, Europe, and even the world.  At the same time, the authors are dedicated to explaining that the education of children has always involved controversy:  controversy ‘about why history should be taught, about what sort of history should be taught, about how much history should be taught, about to whom history should be taught, about how history should be taught, and about how well history was being taught.’ (p. 3)  As they amply demonstrate, controversy and history teaching in England have gone hand-in-hand since the subject was introduced to state schools at the beginning of the last century.  Accordingly, there is nothing new about the current disputes surrounding the teaching of history in England.

One of the more fascinating themes of this comprehensive book is the battle over the teaching of imperial history.  In 1902 the inventor of Empire Day, Lord Meath, found it shocking that school leavers knew nothing about the Indian Mutiny.  He was equally distraught that school textbooks virtually ignored the subject.  The Board of Education, however, was unsympathetic throughout the first forty years of the twentieth century.  In fact, they appeared downright dismissive of imperial history as a subject because it could be used for propagandistic purposes.  At first they attempted to cloak their hostility in the guise of disinterest among students for the subject.  According to J. W. Headlam-Morley, writing in 1918, ‘We cannot get boys and girls to be interested in subjects such as the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia.’ (p. 58)  But by the late 1930s, some English school officials no longer attempted to conceal their animosity toward the historical study of the empire.  Their fear that the study of empire could lead to violence or intolerance led these officials to ban the celebration of Empire Day in 1937.  By keeping the history of the British Empire from their students, the Board of Education, local education authorities, and teachers were creating absent-minded imperialists, as Bernard Porter has so eloquently dubbed the English.[1]  This would not begin to change in English schools until the empire came crashing down in the mid-1960s.  Only then did it appear safe to teach the children of a declining Britain about their place in the world.

Although syllabuses remained locally-controlled in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the end of empire forced a re-evaluation of what type of history was taught to students.  Now the calls for a more outward-looking perspective rang out from all quarters.  It was argued widely that children needed to learn about Britain’s interactions with the wider world.  According to a leading article in The Times, following a House of Commons vote to join the European Common Market, ‘Students should be taught a European history, related to the history of the whole world, rather than the narrowly British history, which is still all too common.’ (p. 140)  This followed, if perhaps unknowingly, the recommendations of the Newsom Report of 1963.  This report, which limited its remit to children of average to low intelligence above the age of eleven, argued for the need to study Britain in its global context.  Newsom believed that ‘in British history, perhaps the most important thing to do with pupils before they finally leave school will be an assessment of Britain’s true position in the world today’.  (p. 152)  This knowledge would make students more internationally-minded than had been the case before.   In other words, if Britons wanted to succeed they needed to understand their diminished global role.[2]

Thus, by the latter half of the twentieth century, global history became a focus of many educationalists as they tried to determine how the world could fit into the curriculum.  As Cannadine and his co-investigators are quick to point out, history held the key to understanding Britain’s position in the world, just as it does now.  Britain’s interaction with the world was the type of history that needed to be taught to children, since what they learned at school played a critical role in forming their worldview as adults.  According to C. F. Strong, a proponent of the traditional national history narrative, the time had come to place a declining Britain in its proper world-setting in order to inculcate in children ‘a sense of proportion and an attitude of tolerance.’ (p. 178)

This belief in the need for world history did not, however, change the complexion of A Level history examinations, which continued to include two papers until the changes issued in by the National Curriculum in 1988:  one on English history and one on European history.  Even today, domestic British history makes up a large share of the curriculum at the primary level. As the authors point out, at secondary level, however, world history, multicultural themes, and the study of slavery and the British Empire have become more prominent.  It appears that the study of Britain’s global interactions is the trend of the future.

The Right Kind of History is the first comprehensive account of the teaching of the subject in English state schools from 1900 to the present.  The authors should be commended for taking an incredibly undeveloped subject and giving it form.  This is even more difficult when it is remembered that for much of the twentieth century history was taught to children from the perspective of the individual teacher or local school board.  By finding connecting themes, the authors have managed to offer solid generalizations about what students were taught about history throughout the twentieth century.  As a result, all future studies of the way history has been, and is, taught in England must begin with Cannadine, Keating, and Sheldon.


[1] Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain (Oxford, 2004).

[2] This warning should also be sounded to Americans today as the U.S.’s global hegemony comes under increasing strain from countries like China.

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