History Becoming the Preserve of the Rich?

Simon Schama, Professor of History at Columbia University, has misgivings about higher education cuts by UK Government that could lead to the decline of history as a field of study and basis of knowledge. Here, in The Telegraph (February 23, 2011), he outlines his concern. See also his November 30, “Views about the Future of History,” in this blog.  Interested in learning more about history in general, then check out our website:  www.history4everyone.com

The Government’s new history tsar who was called in by Education Secretary Michael Gove to advise the Government on the history curriculum in schools, also berated academic snobbery among some fellow historians who have worked solely in higher education.

Broadcaster Schama, 66, who is Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University, also made no secret of his fears for what lies ahead for the study of the arts and humanities in British universities.

He said he had deep misgivings about the proposed new financial regimen for higher education.

Schama said he was uneasy that “sciences and subjects, which seem to be on a utilitarian measure useful, have retained their state funding, while the arts and humanities are being stripped of theirs.”

He fears that such a move will have the “unfortunate” effect of channelling students into subjects such as accountancy rather than philosophy or the history of art.

Schama said Britain runs the risk of causing “appalling” damage to culture by making the arts and humanities the preserve only of the well-heeled.

In a thinly veiled attack on PM David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg, Schama said: “It behoves those people who were themselves educated at places like Westminster, and Eton – or in my case, Haberdashers’ – to understand the damage that you can do to British culture by making it essentially a wealthy pursuit.”

He also slammed some fellow academics, adding: “You have to work very hard to make history boring, and there are plenty of people in the institutions who do a brilliant job of making it boring.

“I was lucky enough to be taught at school and particularly at university by teachers who believed that history was not just for other historians and was not purely an academic pursuit.

“They really resisted the slightly incestuous model of debates which were hissy fits between rival schools of historians.”

He added: you have to make sure you understand the social realities of what it’s like to deal with a classroom, for example in inner cities, where a very high proportion of children have English as a second language. Those social realities are very compelling.”

However, he believes that youngsters retain a hunger for knowledge about the past, and that history remains popular in schools.

He said: “Children of all ages are wired for ancestral stories and they are also wired for a kind of critical curiosity. In other words, not just to be a kind of passive blotting paper for ethics but also to ask questions about it.”

Schama was speaking during a visit to the University of York to mark the tenth anniversary of his landmark 15-part BBC series A History of Britain which he wrote and presented



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