Past holds the key to our future

Understanding our history as a nation is vital if we want our young people to understand the world they live in, says historian Dominic Sandbrook.

Past holds the key to our future

Understanding our history as a nation is vital if we want our young people to understand the world they live in, says historian Dominic Sandbrook.

He may write about 21st century history but Dominic Sandbrook is adamant that teachers should focus more on Medieval history in the classroom.

“It’s tempting to teach modern history. It’s accessible and easy. So many focus on the Nazis and American civil rights. What they should be doing is teaching about the Wars of the Roses, the Norman Conquest, all those events which will help children make sense of the world we live in today.

“History is everything that has happened in the past. It’s important we give children a wide perspective of history, not just a section.”

In 2004 Dr Sandbrook published his first book, Eugene McCarthy, on the Democratic politician who challenged President Johnson over the issue of the Vietnam War. He went on to write four acclaimed histories of modern Britain: Never Had It So Good, State of Emergency, White Heat and Seasons in the Sun.

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He has recently been working as a consultant for the BBC Two drama, White Heat, which uses his books for historical background. He also presented the BBC2 series The 70s earlier this year.

Now Dr Sandbrook, who lives in Oxfordshire, is researching a new book which will focus on the Thatcher years.

Dr Sandbrook, who was born in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, loved history as a child. “I loved doing my history homework. With history you meet a whole load of people who are so very interesting. History expands your imagination.”

He won a scholarship to Malvern College and it was there with teacher Roy Allen that passion for history truly developed.

“Like all the best history teachers, he was just a little eccentric, with his fondness for obscure European films, his witty puncturing of our teenage pretensions and his love of a glass of red,” reclaims Dr Sandbrook.

“I vividly recall what was surely his darkest hour, when he arrived a few minutes late for our lesson on the French Revolution with the words: ‘Have you heard? She’s resigned!’”

Dr Sandbrook recalls the teacher ushering the class into the staff common room so they could watch on TV the unfolding drama of Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. Dominic wondered if there had not be a tear in Mr Allen’s eye.

“When I asked him about it, many years later, he merely shook his head and smiled. ‘Wasn’t she beautiful?’ he said softly, and then fell silent, lost in reverie. Perhaps it was just as well he never taught in Liverpool.”

A good teacher, argues Dr Sandbrook, stays with you for life. “When Mr Allen taught it was like he was throwing open a window where you could see this incredible vista of the past. For a teenager it was a very intoxicating experience.”

Dr Sandbrook went on to read history and French at Balliol College, Oxford. He spent a year as a language assistant in France before returning to Oxford to finish his degree, going on to study his Masters in history at the University of St Andrews and then a PhD at Jesus College.

These days he writes a range of publications including BBC History magazine, the Daily Mail, The Observer, The Times and the Telegraph. It is his pieces in the Daily Mail which spark colourful comments from readers.

Like many in education, Dr Sandbrook is critical of constant chopping and changing of the National Curriculum and the education as a whole.  He wholeheartedly supports the plan to bring back O-levels. “I admire Michael Gove for finally getting a grip.

“The education system is in a bit of a mess. The Government continues to meddle and that is the root of the problem. It needs to be less prescriptive and with higher standards.” 

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