A Guardian report today – yes, with its fair share of spin; Guardian readers evidently cannot be trusted to make up their own minds whether the following sentences are 'blatant' or not – trails a speech to be made today by the Conservative shadow education secretary.
Political commentators give the Conservatives no chance of forming the next government, so we probably should not expect any action as a result of these words, but Classicists may well agree with them:
“Mr Collins will say: “Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms. A nation which loses sight of its past cannot long expect to enjoy its future.
“When surveys show nearly a third of all 11-18 year olds think that Oliver Cromwell fought at the Battle of Hastings and when fewer than half know that Nelson's ship at Trafalgar was called HMS Victory we have to take action.”
The Tory answer is to make History a compulsary subject to age 16. I can't remember when I ceased to have history lessons (I don't count Ancient History), but it was certainly a good bit before I was 16; and I had a pretty good outline knowledge of English history by the age of 11, having been taught in Ireland till that age.
What is more, I enjoyed it. I believe that this was because of the way I learned it – through stories. No doubt the stories were told in a simplified and slanted way, but that fitted in well with my interests and abilities at a tender age. Critical niceties could come later. Is there a modern equivalent of Fletcher and Kipling's History of England, the book from my parents' bookshelves that used to read for sheer enjoyment? Kipling's contribution was a series of poems scattered through the book, including the one about the river Thames, and all that it had seen through the centuries, and one about paying Danegeld, didactic but memorable.
Do our Classics pupils hear the stories of Horatius Cocles, Cloelia, Cincinnatus, and the like? Should they? In a wider European context they are part of our history, a formative part. And that is not to mention the part these stories have played in the cultural development of our civilisation. What do you think?