Sir Simon Jenkins, interviewed in last week’s Times* said it was essential that politicians had a firm grasp of history. “Politics is prejudice tempered by history,” he said, meaning that political decisions will be swayed by ideology unless they are moderated by knowledge of historical events and their consequences. If politicians had been better acquainted with history, he argues, they would have been better able to foresee the consequences of war in Afghanistan or of creating the poll tax.
“The point of studying history is to inform your politics,” he said, and this is just as true outside the confines of Westminster. It informs decisions about how people wish to be ruled.
What has this to do with education? First, knowledge of history allows readers to debunk nonsense
such as “Nothing in the history of British education has improved schooling more than Blair and Adonis’ (sic) Academies programme”. What, more influential than Forster’s Education Act 1870, which established the framework for English elementary education? More significant than the steady raising of the school leaving age? More important than widening access to universities? (The journalist responsible for the quotation doesn’t know his geography either – the Academies policy is only in England). Secondly, and more fundamentally, knowledge of history should alert the electorate when government tries to take power from it.
Sir Simon is concerned about “the constant remorseless accretion of power” at the centre. “The one thing that checks central government is local government,” he warns, “Parliament is now an electoral college for the new oligarchs”. And it is these proto-oligarchs who want to destroy local government and replace it with central power.
*Saturday Review, 3 September 2011, available only to subscribers