November 17, 2010

History, Leather Jacket, and Shades

Apparently Simon Schama has been hired by the British Tories to revamp History education in secondary schools. If you don’t know who Simon Schama is, which seems unlikely, have a look at this.

For whatever reason, Schama is the kind of Brit who is vaunted and valued by dint of living in America. He gets paid really a lot of money to present self-penned history programmes on the BBC, attracting the ire of the ivory tower, and the interest of the incumbents of No. 10. I last saw him on election night, doing bits to camera from a booze cruise on the Thames, and generally causing everyone to wonder why on earth anyone thought his opinion particularly mattered. But then, this is Simon Schama, and Simon Schama has a leather jacket. I suspect he also owns shades. He is a cool historian. It’s official.

I’ll reserve judgment on the kind of curriculum he’s been able to come up with, but it is worth questioning his appointment. I live for the day when people who advise the government are selected because they are the best qualified to do so. In this instance, a respected historian who has extensive experience working with schools, perhaps preparing teenagers for History at university, or advising teachers, would have fitted the bill. Perhaps an History Ph.D who went into teaching. Maybe just a really great History teacher who knew his stuff, and had a good idea what was wrong. But no. Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University, NY. His main expertise pertains to the Dutch. He writes and presents authoritatively on everything: a Jack of All Trades, or ‘paper philosopher’, if you will. As far as any of us might guess, he hasn’t set foot in a secondary school, well, ever. Schama went to public school (in the British sense of that term).

So, we must presume that he was selected because someone saw him on the telly and, when pressed to name anybody who knew anything about the past, blurted out his name, pub-quiz style. Fair-play to Simon for taking the gig. I mean, who wouldn’t take the opportunity to stamp his brand on a generation he’ll never meet in the streets? But our leaders must cease to be swayed by the suave and the leather-jacketed of this world and make a concerted effort to put substance into their judgments. I’ll hold my hands up and admit my mistake if the Schama revolution generates a tidal wave of brilliance among teenage historians. But my suspicion is that he’s just too cool for school.

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