July 21, 2003
History students learn more from TV than books
By Tony Halpin
HISTORY students at university have studied their subject more from watching television than reading serious books, according to a survey of academics published today.
Few new undergraduates have read any history books at all and many expect academics to entertain them with TV-style stories rather than serious lectures.
Most had far less historical knowledge than previous generations of A-level students, barring an "unwholesome" interest in Nazi Germany and other 20th-century dictatorships.
Half of the 100 history departments at universities and higher education colleges responded to the eleventh annual survey by History Today magazine. It said that academics had offered "frank and often disturbing" insights into the state of knowledge of modern undergraduates.
The subject remained popular among students, with a majority of colleges reporting an increase in applications over the past five years. But the quality of candidates was repeatedly questioned.
At Leeds, John Gooch, a history academic, said that few A-level students had read "even one history book all the way through". The lack of knowledge among first-year undergraduates had forced lecturers to become more like school teachers.
Academics at Lancaster said that students had less "book-learning" experience. Alan Sharp, at the University of Ulster, said that lecturers may be "assuming skills and knowledge based on an outdated understanding of A/AS levels".
Universities said that what little A-level students knew tended to centre on the 20th century, and Hitler in particular. Donal McRaid, at Northumbria, said that the Nazi era had become an obsession.
Academics at Cardiff said that too many students opted for the 20th century, studying material they had already covered twice at GCSE and A level. Anne Hughes, at Keele, said that lecturers had to challenge students' assumptions that they were "experts" on the Nazis and other 20th-century topics.
Most universities had responded to the "men with moustaches" syndrome by compelling students to take courses in medieval and non-European history to broaden their horizons.
Sally Alexander, at Goldsmiths College, London, said that television history had "widened and provoked" students' curiosity, while Daniel Power, at Sheffield, believed that it offered students "a better sense of the chronological and geographical breadth of history than A level does".
All departments said that they had to provide translations of foreign texts for students. The language barrier was now so great that some departments feared for the future recruitment of history academics capable of studying texts in other languages.
At Stirling, one academic said that new students had an "uneven" mastery of the English language "to put it mildly".
Concerns also emerged about a new "class divide" between wealthy students and those who had to work to support themselves at college. Academics at Stirling said that attendance at optional lectures fell 70 per cent within a fortnight of the start of courses because students had taken jobs. Most universities feared that students' money problems would intensify once fees of up to £3,000 a year were introduced from 2006.
Many historians were scathing about Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, and government policy on higher education. Robert Frost, at King's College London, said that reforms set out in the recent White Paper on higher education showed that the Government "has no clear idea of what a university is for".
John Charmley, from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where Mr Clarke has his constituency, said that the Education Secretary should be abolished.
'Schama covered Britain in six hours -- that's 1,000 years an hour'
David Starkey, historian, presenter and author of Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII: "There are two reasons for this trend. The first is a cultural shift: the young are reading less, and using alternative means to get information such as TV, cinema and the internet.
"The second is the disastrous nature of the A-level syllabus: it's a catastrophe. It doesn't encourage the study of long periods and it puts undue influence on so-called documentary evidence, which encourages a patchwork approach.
Lucy Moore, historian and author of Amphibious Thing: The Life of a Georgian Rake: "I don't think there is any substitute for reading proper history books. Popular and social historians like me make history accessible to people who have never read it before, but there is only so much you can say on television, which means it is ultimately very shallow. There isn't the richness, the infinite layers of meaning, the intellectual exercise that you get from a book."
Michael Wood, historian, presenter and author of In Search of Shakespeare: "I've always seen television as a populising medium which sits between schools and the general public. Using television in the classroom is a bad idea, and I think the survey says more about standards of schoolteaching than history programmes. While history on television can act as a useful introduction to a subject, where it fails is as a medium for argument and analysis."
Adam Hart Davies, writer and presenter of What the Tudors & Stuarts Did for Us: "All history books are fiction in some sense, because they're written by the winners, but books get you closer to the truth than telly. History programmes can communicate an enthusiasm and an idea of what things were like, but they're rotten at communicating the facts.
"Simon Schama did the history of Britain in six hours, which works out at something like a thousand years an hour, but in spotlighting different bits, the programme necessarily left so much out."