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History according to Gove: what is England teaching its children?

Michael Gove's plans for the history curriculum have sparked a war over what should be taught to English children. Criticised as 'shallow' and 'patriotic', praised as taking on the 'left-wing bias' of previous teaching, this is a battle not only over British history, but its present and future.

Joseph Richardson
25 April 2013

Each generation views history through the lens of its own political standpoint. During the 19th century, Whig historians had no qualms about arguing that the present was the blessed culmination of years of development along predestined lines. Sir Thomas Macaulay, in his monumental ‘History of England’, wrote that his purpose was to show: 

"...how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; how, by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible..."

The system of liberal capitalism that prevailed in England was the foreordained consequence of centuries of progress, and the task of the historian was to trace the lineaments of this nascent ideal as it manifested itself across the ages.  Accordingly, the history of Whig authors omitted uncomfortable episodes that sullied this admirable record, dwelling chiefly on the machinations of Kings and political elites and having little room for the uncouth masses, except as distracting interludes in their documenting of the real formative events that gave rise to modern era. Whig historians attached, for instance, an importance to the political events of 1688 that now seems faintly ridiculous, seeing in the replacement of James II by William of Orange, of one Catholic King by another Protestant King, a key turning point in the establishment of English liberties. With not a hint of irony, in their writings they dubbed it the ‘Glorious Revolution’. 

The recent proposed changes to the school curriculum in England represent an attempt to revive the narrative tropes of Whig history, complete with its inordinate focus on great men and vaunted English liberties. Students will receive a salutary education in the essential events that shaped the nation, studying English history in chronological order from the Stone Age up until the election of Thatcher. They will be taught about Admiral Nelson, General Wolfe, Gladstone, Disraeli, Magna Carta and a host of other figures and seminal moments in our steady ascent to greatness, so as to impart a ‘high-quality’ education which will equip them with the ability to think ‘critically’ about the past.

On the face of it, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the education secretary Michael Gove’s insistence that history should be taught chronologically, as opposed to thematically. But since it is of course impossible for students aged 5-18 to cover in depth the full sweep of British history, there is an obvious problem of selection that arises. The question is whether we wish, as our Whig predecessors, to revel in the present as the best of all possible worlds, seeing in the past a gratifying confirmation of our moral grandeur and triumphant march into modernity, or whether we view history with an eye to shaping the future, studying the radical voices and movements that battled powerful interests, by opposing the horrors of imperialism and striving to achieve social justice for the oppressed. Gove evidently favours the former self-congratulatory world view, and is attempting to foist his perspective on the nation’s students.

As with all his reforms of late, as the recent NUT vote of no confidence attests, Gove’s efforts have evoked a rising tide of opposition from the ranks of experts, with the principal historical organisations criticising the new curriculum’s narrow focus and the fact it was decided in the absence of any ‘systematic consultation’ with historians or teachers. Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, noted that the proposed changes were nothing more than ‘rote learning’ of ‘patriotic stocking fillers.’ David Priestland, Professor of Russian History at Oxford, concluded that it marked a reversion to the type of simplistic history found in the Edwardian children’s book ‘Our Island Story.’

There are, however, public intellectuals who have congratulated the education secretary on his courage in taking on insipid left-wing ideas. David Starkey, with his typical brashness, expressed his horror that there were no students on University Challenge who could correctly name the British King that had been deposed by the revolution of 1688. This lamentable lack of historical knowledge among British youth, Starkey argued, could be traced to years of left-wing teaching that disdained facts in favour of modish, politically correct approaches to learning. Starkey would be even more horrified to learn, in the equally outraged words of Daily Mail columnist Toby Young, that ‘according to a BBC poll, half of Britain’s 16- to 24-year-olds cannot identify Sir Francis Drake as the naval commander who helped defeat the Spanish Armada.’

Starkey’s and Young’s musings on the subject aside, in a letter to the Times, 14 academics observed that the changes had ‘long been needed’, and last month the doyen of neocon historians, Niall Ferguson, girt himself for battle and derided Gove’s critics for their ‘pomposity’ in supporting a system that is ‘indefensible’ and resulted in school-leavers ‘knowing nothing whatever about the Norman conquest, the English civil war or the Glorious Revolution.’ 

These critics seem blind to the inevitable outcome of attempting to condense 2000 years of subject material into 13 (for more on the problems inherent in the curriculum, see Robert Guyver’s piece, ‘Gove’s plans for history teaching: fitting Britain into a global picture’). As a result of the reforms, students will be left with only a trivial grasp of key dates and a passing knowledge of historical periods, which is all teachers can reasonably hope to instil in the course of a few hours of lessons a week. In other words, students will end up with an even shallower understanding of history than they are currently accused of possessing. And since the ambitious span of years and consequent superficial coverage does not admit of detailed inquiry, they will be even less competent to question the perverse rendering of history they are being inculcated with.

From this contented perspective, history is a repository of dead facts out of which can be constructed a nationalist tableau, comprising heroic statesmen, generals, and benevolent imperialists, but not unlike the sombre paintings of morally edifying scenes and grand personages that bedeck the walls of a manor house, meant to be gazed at and nothing more. The idea of history as an inspiring record of struggle to achieve change in the face of obstinate opposition from political and economic elites, as well as a dire warning of the horrendous suffering wrought by empire, does not apparently occur to Gove. History, rather than a stimulus to action, is reduced to a dignified procession of the great and the good.

Though the Chartists are mentioned in the new curriculum, the great waves of social protest that wracked Britain throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and to which we owe many of the liberties that Gove is eager to present as striking testimony to the munificence of our ruling classes, merit only token references. What allusions there are to radical movements are so shorn of context that it becomes easy for students to infer that the major moral divides of the period were personified by Gladstone and Disraeli, or Salisbury and Chamberlain, whilst the material betterment of the masses sprang from a series of non-contentious reforms, such as the Factory Acts, introduced on the initiative of generous-hearted MPs, unprompted by fears of social revolution. The liberal reforms of the early 1900s that laid the grounds for modern welfare relief are covered, but you will search in vain for mention of any of the innumerable mass strikes that inspired politicians and businessmen of the time with terror, right up until the eve of World War 1. Nor are the multiple strikes in the coal industry that followed the war and the general strike of 1926 referred to, though the abdication of Edward VIII in favour of his brother Albert is absurdly inflated into a ‘constitutional crisis.’ In the midst of this Whiggish manifesto, the ‘Chartists’ and the ‘birth of trade unionism’ thus appear as curious anomalies.

As for the portrait of British imperialism sketched by the curriculum, it’s unsurprising that historians like Neill Ferguson are so besotted with it. Ferguson has led the charge of current apologists in attempting to show that the British Empire was the ‘least bad’ of all its rivals, having asserted in his book (‘Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World’) that in contrast to its counterparts ‘so powerful and consistent was (the) tendency to judge Britain’s imperial conduct against the yardstick of liberty that it gave the British Empire something of a self-liquidating character’, a statement which surely would have come as a surprise to many of Britain’s harried subjects. The Irish famine barely registers in Ferguson’s book, whilst the Indian famine of 1876 is raised in a few paragraphs only to be curtly dismissed with the trite remark: ‘But would Indians have been better off under the Mughals? Or, for that matter, under the Dutch – or the Russians?’ Michael Gove, like Ferguson, is similarly taken with the notion that Britain’s empire constituted something unique. In a seminar on liberal interventionism last year he contended ‘there have also been more benign empires, and in that I would include almost pre-eminently, the British.’

The underlying purpose of focussing on the exploits of such individuals as Clive of India at the expense of civic movements and social upheaval becomes even clearer on a further perusal of the curriculum’s treatment of the 20th century. Students will study the rise of the dictators (by which presumably is meant Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin) and the impact of Communism on Europe during the Cold War era. Teachers are enjoined to pay particular attention to Nazi atrocities by educating students in the ‘unique evil of the holocaust.’ The implication is that communist and fascist dictatorships were fundamentally novel developments sharply distinguishable from the 19th century forms of imperialism that preceded them. 

Already supporters of the new curriculum have sought to impugn their critics by accusing them of peddling a politicised version of history.  It’s a slur that one suspects Whig writers of the 19th century would have been quite perplexed by, since, as the quote beginning this article makes clear, they took obvious pride in Britain’s political system and boldly set out to justify it by recourse to the past. The current proponents of Whig history prefer a less brazen approach, pretending to view the past from atop an elevated plinth whence they can deride their opponents for scrabbling in the political dirt. Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, took a different but equally cynical view, likening the debate over how history should be taught to a Civil War battle raging between Cavaliers (Labour) and Roundheads (Conservatives). Whilst they were in power, Labour sought to impose its left-wing view of history on schools; now it is only fair that Gove and his ‘new model army’ should be given their chance.

As the great historian Howard Zinn argued, it is impossible to be neutral on a moving train. Most historical study is ultimately invested with a purpose, and it is the historians who declaim loudest against politicised history who are usually its most ardent practitioners. We must eventually choose either to take up the cause of the oppressed or the oppressor. We can opt either to derive from history lessons of use in our continuing efforts to elaborate the contours of a future, more equitable society, or we can adopt the perspective of those contented with our current lot by hallowing the actions of the powerful. The new curriculum makes it clear what side of history Gove and his advisors are on.    

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