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'The History Boys:' an American Perspective
Last uploaded : Monday 23rd Oct 2006 at 00:48
Contributed by : Carol Gould


News Image: President Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address.

There has been some interesting debate of late about the British school curriculum in the wake of the huge success of the film of Alan Bennett’s hit play ‘The History Boys.’

The historian Dr. David Starkey has observed that history teaching is ‘useless.’ Oxford Professor Dominic Sandbrook argues that the great gaps in the teaching of history in Britain are lamentable. He has come across young people who know nothing about any Prime Minister other than Churchill and who have little awareness of the great sweep of history in a British and world context. The fragmented nature of history teaching is producing a generation of Britons who have a smattering of the Tudors, the American civil rights movement and the Nazi era. Recent polls suggest 25% of British children are unable to locate the United Kingdom on a world map, and 70% have no idea where the United States may be found on the same map.

Sandbrook believes that the curriculum should include a comprehensive narrative of the nation’s history ‘from the Celts and Romans to Thatcher and Blair.’ He praises Chancellor Gordon Brown for wanting schools to produce a nation ‘with a clear idea of Britain’s historical heritage and national character, because the alternative is a rootless, intellectually denatured population, lamentably easy pickings for Islamic extremists..’

The excellent overview Sandbrook wrote for the London ‘Evening Standard,’ in which he nobly urged teachers to convey greatness of character through ‘Newton’s brilliance to the idealism of the Chartists and the courage of Churchill’ also recommends ‘taking pride in Britain’s historical achievements.’

This set me thinking about my own American education, which for the thirty-odd years I have spent in Great Britain has been, from time to time, the object of derision from dinner companions and work colleagues. At the very worst, comments have been made about the ‘ghastly habit of flying the flag;’ ‘that ghastly Pledge of Allegiance’ and ‘those ghastly anthems sung by those appalling soloists at baseball games.’

But the very thing that solidifies the American psyche and that sustained Americans after Pearl Harbour, the assassination of President Kennedy and 9/11 is a common heritage derived from a course of study that instils a sense of pride in children across that huge nation and a deeply-held affection for that ‘ghastly’ flag, Pledge of Allegiance and anthem.

Some criticise the American educational system as a kind of Soviet-style indoctrination. Looked at from a perspective of having lived outside the United States for three decades, I would venture to call it a solid grounding in one’s national identity that sustains one for a lifetime. What is astonishing about the British attitude towards the American educational system is that no-one who has ever remonstrated with me has ever set foot in an American school.

In elementary public schools children learn about the earliest heroism of the Pilgrims, escaping religious persecution and making the perilous sea journey to the New World, which was a fiercely hostile wilderness. Notwithstanding the tirades I have endured for thirty years from Britons about the ‘genocide committed against the Red Indians’ it has to be stressed that much of the Native American population was warlike and brutal, and that many settlers died in their first winter. The Indians were defending their nations against the white invaders but the early settlers also showed immense courage and perseverance, often trying to reach out with kindness to the native tribes.

Elementary school teaches, in sequence, the remarkable achievements of William Penn’s earliest Quaker settlers in my native state of Pennsylvania, the misery of life in the colonies under increasingly punitive British taxes and regulations, and the culmination of this crisis in the American Revolution. What can be more exciting to youngsters than the stories of Paul Revere, Betsy Ross, Haym Solomon, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, not to mention General Washington’s heroic crossing of the Delaware?

When I attended ceremonies in Washington and Philadelphia on a recent holiday I was moved to tears by the anthems and events being commemorated. I was as moved in 2005 as I had been forty years before as a little girl on a school visit to the Betsy Ross House, where the first colonial flag was sewn.

Perhaps I feel a special connection to these event because I grew up in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the American nation. One could hop on a school bus and visit the place where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence and drafted the monumental Constitution in Carpenters’ Hall. Yes, being born in Philadelphia made me feel a special connection to these history-altering events, but one will find Americans who grew up in Iowa or Kansas equally stirred. The American Revolution inspired the French insurgency, generated remarkable literature from Paine, Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson, whilst the eclectic brilliance of Ben Franklin remains a source of awe to this day.

Another aspect of American history that causes fury from those who rail about that nation’s ‘shameful’ history is the legacy of slavery. Slavery was a British and European enterprise and many nations participated in this heinous industry. Where the British view of black American history becomes a muddle is the notion that the whole of America participated in a form of apartheid. In a separate article we will be looking at the contribution free black men and women made to the War of Independence and to commerce in the North, but suffice it to say that many states welcomed free blacks.

The magnificent prose of Abraham Lincoln ( he wrote his own speeches on rumpled bits of paper) heralded the end of slavery. The hideous Civil War, which is the subject of the elementary school curriculum in fifth grade, is a scar on American history but the nation survived. American schoolchildren take trips to Gettysburg to see the acres of grave markers of soldiers from both Confederate and Yankee units. Supposedly I have an ancestor who fought for the Confederacy; visiting these battlefields is a stirring experience and one I have never forgotten, forty years later. Every British child should admire the greatness of the abolitionist Wilberforce, just as every American child reveres Lincoln and the massive Yankee armies of the North who died to free the slaves. When I am berated about American racism I remind Europeans that a whole nation, brother against brother, went to war on the issue of slavery, led by a visionary who delivered some of the most stirring oratory in human history.

Every Briton should visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. His eloquence, engraved in gigantic slabs next to his dour countenance, is overwhelming. Would that we had a similar memorial to William Wilberforce in this country.

Voting rights for men were far broader in the United States than in the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, and by the turn of the twentieth century the nation was moving towards its destiny as a world power. The rights of Jews were always far superior to those in the United Kingdom, and the history of the earliest Jewish citizens was always a source of great pride to Jewish children in elementary schools. Again, the concept of a common heritage built -- with all its flaws -- on freedom for all arrivals instils in American children a sense of who they are.

In many cities in eleventh grade the profoundly shocking Alain Resnais Holocaust film 'Night and Fog' is shown to students. I remember girls in my class fainting and being ill, but it was shown and that was that. The American curriculum, even in my day long ago, taught both the good and the harrowing and sought to cultivate a sense of conscience in those of a still-tender age.

The great sweep of history is an enduring part of growing up in the United States. Since the civil rights movement African American children have been afforded a dignity their parents and grandparents did not experience in the school environment. When I am challenged by British and European colleagues about ‘racist’ America I ask them to find me a European nation with a black Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (Colin Powell before retirement) or Secretary of State (Dr Condoleezza Rice.)

In sixth grade the year is spent on the history of Central and South America, from the Incas, Mayas and Aztec to the present-day antics of Hugo Chavez. Junior and high school deliver a rich tapestry of international literature, art history and world events. The idea that the American curriculum breeds intellectual cripples is lamentable. Just studying American literary giants alone could fill more than a year's curriculum; Twain, Longfellow, Hawthorne, James, Cather, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dreiser, Poe, Thoreau, Wharton, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Mailer, Wouk, Michener, Miller and Hellman are formidable names that have emerged from a country with a comparatively short history. Britain’s staggering literary legacy should also be a source of immense pride to the young in the United Kingdom, and should be taught within the context of its long history and place in the world.

One of the most inspiring aspects of the American K-12 school curriculum is the number of world-renowned orators and leaders who have come from its shores. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Rebecca Gratz, Abraham Lincoln, Emma Lazarus, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Dr Martin Luther King were larger than life and some could have been said to have changed the nation and the world.

When American children of every colour and creed wave little flags, sing the Star Spangled Banner and jump up and down with glee on July 4th they are not little puppets of a fascist regime. (This is a description a dinner companion recently used to characterise the American life experience. ) There is something almost visceral in the year-by-year sweep of the Pilgrims’ journeys, the Revolutionary War, the freeing of slaves after the Civil War, the industrial revolution, women’s suffrage, Woodrow Wilson’ s dream of a league of nations, the genius of the triumph of FDR over the Depression with his Works Progress Association, Tennessee Valley Authority, Social Security and New Deal, and the victory over Hitler and Hirohito. The eloquence of the Gettysburg Address, of Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ inaugural prose, and of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech are part of the American educational experience and contribute to a sense of manifest destiny.

The image of the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima is indelibly embedded in the minds of most American children. One must note here that the shameful segregation of troops ended after the Second World War. Nothing was more moving to me than producing a documentary this year about black soldiers and welcoming them to England. Despite their wartime apartheid the men were proud of their service and became very angry when our British hosts began what I like to call the ‘Guardian lecture’ about the evils of America in the world.

This is an important point in the context of the Starkey-Sandbrook theories on the teaching of history in Britain. Nothing stirs many Americans more than the Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and some are the children of left-leaning, Depression-era, socially conscious parents. When I visit the USA I love the sight of the flag everywhere. For thirty years my British friends have expressed their dismay at this troubling aspect of American life, but I am at a loss to explain why it does not worry me.

In recent weeks there have been reports of serious incidents of racial abuse from crowds of young football supporters in the Uk and across Europe. Despite the rebukes I have received over the years about 'racist' USA it is highly unlikely any white American youngsters would dare to utter racial epithets to their black baseball, football, and basketball heroes. This is a direct result of an enlightened history curriculum and a contsantly-evolving national educational system.

My childhood education was very special and perhaps I exaggerate its value. I attended the Anna Blakiston Day Elementary School, the Morris Leeds Junior High and the academically gruelling Philadelphia High School for Girls. It was simply a cultural fluke that many of the teachers were Jewish, and were, like my late mother, products of the horrendously demanding Normal School. When Yom Kippur rolled around we joked that the Philadelphia School system would have to close because of the preponderance of Jewish teachers. Many of these educators were children of immigrants but their fierce pride in America and their command of knowledge of American history, of literature and of science was prodigious. Their enthusiasm for every subject was infectious and inculcated a generation of children with a deep sense of national identity.

At Girls’ High a roster of eminent, mostly WASP pedagogues -- imagine! Women raised in the 1930s who had Ph Ds! -- taught my class; these prodigiously cultured teachers were DARs, or Daughters ( and sons) of the American Revolution. Those of us lucky enough to have been taught English literature by Helen Johnston were gifted with an infectious attachment to British writers. She 'talked' to 'Charles' (Dickens) and would exalim 'Oh, Charles!' when one of us offered an inane answer to a question. When dining with a Brigadier not long ago, he said, ‘It is a pity you Americans have no culture to speak of.’ I would have hated to pit him against the minds of those Philadelphian Ph Ds.

Once when visiting a school in Philadelphia’s Little Italy, a class of eager nine-year-olds was overcome with excitement that I was to speak about British customs and daily life. Their knowledge of things British took me aback. Their questions were tough and I found myself overwhelmed by their enthusiasm for European news. Perhaps the blend of Catholic schooling and Italian-American history with the national curriculum gave them a broader view of the world than of those in non-religious public schools, but their knowledge took me aback.

One hopes this enthusiasm and feeling of national worth can be reclaimed in the British school system. If my colleagues are telling me that flag waving, patriotism, and a sense of national destiny are a form of fascism, then one worries that this is being instilled in the young.

Despite the image promulgated in Britain of a violent, vulgar and divided America, I have to explain to my family what a ‘hoodie’ is. There are no hooligans at sporting events. Churches and synagogues are full, and this is not some form of national mania, as Cambridge religion-basher Richard Dawkins would like to tell us. There is also a commonly held view that Americans have no idea where Europe is, but a country that produces more Nobel Prize winners than any other and that has given the world NASA, Microsoft, the Mayo Clinic, and 70% of the top ten universities in the world cannot be a nation of imbeciles. Russell H Conwell delivered the legendary ‘diamonds in your own backyard’ speech in Philadelphia and perhaps this is why 80% of Americans do not bother to buy a passport.

On July 4th in Washington I watched small black and oriental-American children waving their tiny flags on their fathers’ shoulders. In Philadelphia I watched bubbling, eager crowds blocks long waiting to see the Declaration of Independence and Liberty Bell and who had travelled from as far away as Montana and New Mexico. On Thanksgiving I watched families of every ethnic background rushing to travel to their relatives to celebrate this most beautiful and unifying of national commemorations. If their children are receiving what I believe is an education that instils in them a deep sense of national pride and destiny, it cannot be condemned. It would be wonderful if this sort of magic could be re-created in the schoolrooms of Great Britain, a country with a stunning national history that deserves pride of place in the national curriculum.
You can read the 'Evening Standard' online at


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