openDemocracyUK

Long live history!

The new government wants to revive English history. The questions are how and with whom.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
2 June 2010

It seems history will once again be taught in English schools in a narrative rather than chopped up modular fashion. But who will write the textbooks? According to the Guardian Nial Ferguson, the cheerleader of Empire, is being recruited by the new Education Sectretary Michael Gove to take a leading part. If so, there is a simple test of whether Gove is interested in a top quality version of our history that sets out the issues or... brainwashing.

Any committee has to include Stephen Howe, now the Professor of the History and Cultures of Colonialism at Bristol. His 2004 openDemocracy assessment of Ferguson shows the quality of his judgement. He is the author of the Oxford very short Introduction to Empire

In a sharp blast at Ferguson's threatened appointment in the Staggers, Laurie Penny concludes,

But history is not about the big story, the single story, the story told by the overculture. History is not about 'celebrating' the past or making white kids feel good about their cultural inheritance. History is a process of exploring the legacy of the past, and questioning it - including the ugly, uncomfortable parts. No wonder the Tories want to tear it up and start again.

I'm afraid it was torn up long before the Tories got into office last month.

Where Laurie is spot on is in arguing that history isn't a "single story". Labour's attempt at this was Gordon Brown's teeth gritting effort to set out the meaning of British history all by himself - defining a single "golden thread" while attempting to ingratiate himself with as many right-wingers as he could.

Typically, he sought to occupy the terrain yet never delivered in terms of putting history back on the curriculum.

The past has many threads and the past is open. What it offers is an opportunity to learn to think about how we have come to be what we are. Which is why it should indeed be a vital part of everyone's education. This demands a narrative history, of course. But one that puts questions to those who learn it: We (the English that is, thanks Jim) had a Civil War, which side would you be on, Roundhead or Cavalier, and why? The British conquered India using a private corporation, the East India Company, which was finally replaced after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 was crushed. The colonial Raj was created out of the disaster. Would you have supported the formidable Queen Rani Lakshmibai in her legendary opposition or was Queen Victoria better for the sub-continent? And even if your choice is Victoria should not Rani too have a statue in London to acknowledge her heroic resistance?

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