One youth’s take on the History Wars

With the exit of Michael Gove in the surprise reshuffle of July 2014, teachers up and down the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (potentially soon to be the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth of Scotland) will be celebrating the start of a new term sans the man described by the Financial Times as the “most hated education secretary in history”. The struggle for direction of the state education system in every area of policy-making from performance-linked pay to P.E. lessons fractured relations between the Coalition Government and teaching unions. Opposition struck Gove not only from the unions but from unusual opponents such as the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, a group of elite private schools whose “grave reservations” about Gove’s plans to replace GCSE exams with a proposed English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) was one factor in Gove’s eventual abandonment of the project in February 2013.

But one policy which drew the intense focus of academics and ratcheted the stakes of national emotions perhaps more than any other was Gove’s designs for school history curricula. Affecting pupils from ages five to fourteen, the ages at which history is a compulsory subject in British schools, the curricula would have determined the content, interpretive framework and teleology of how history was taught and examined in schools in England and Wales. The proposed changes were ardently opposed by Professor Sir Richard J. Evans not least for establishing a chronologically-driven curriculum whose main aim was “to foster a sense of British national identity”, an agenda Evans first accused Gove and his supporters of pursuing in a scathing March 2011 article in the London Review of Books, ‘The Wonderfulness of Us (The Tory Interpretation of History)’.

Evans remained the new curriculum’s most prominent public critic, responding to each revision with meticulous rebuttals in The Guardian from August 2011 up to Gove’s removal from the Department for Education in July 2014. When the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge is leading opposition to your designs on history, you may wish to reconsider. Leading figures from the Historical Association, the British Academy, History UK and the Royal Historical Society criticized the British-centric character of the new curriculum in an open letter to the Observer, though offered an olive branch to Gove in proposing a new consultation with historians.

Despite revisions to the first published plans and Gove’s expression of ‘openness’ to a broader consultation, the first rumblings of the need for “major revision” to the DfE’s plans became public in June 2013, thanks in no small part to the opposition by historians and the backtracking of some of the project’s erstwhile supporters. The historian Simon Schama, initially selected by Gove as an advisor and public champion of the history curriculum became a virulent opponent, describing the curriculum as including a “pedantic, utopian scheme” guilty of “insulting, offensive, imperviousness” comparing it to the classic history satire “1066 and All That, but without the jokes”. In a bully-pulpit address at the Telegraph‘s Hay Festival 2013, he urged history teachers to oppose and obstruct the implementation of the plans and was met with rapturous applause. At this point, a reading of Antony’s Funeral Oration might have assisted Gove, though it is unlikely that colleagues in school English departments would have been enthusiastic in assisting his comprehension.

Professor Evans, Schama and the academics were not lone Ivory Tower reactionaries shouting in the wilderness – the Historical Association produced a shocking poll result that revealed the level of discontent among history teachers resulting only from how the curriculum plans were announced and formulated: “96.2% of all the secondary teachers we surveyed felt that not enough attention had been given to the views of history teachers”. Teachers’ opinions of the plans themselves did not rate much more favorably for Gove – the Historical Association’s poll further stated that “93% of respondents strongly disagree that everything from Stone Age to 1700 should be taught at primary” and that “96% of our survey respondents thought the new NC [National Curriculum] was over prescriptive”. What Michael Gove and the supporters of his proposals, including the right-wing historians Niall Ferguson, David Starkey and Max Hastings failed to recognise was that history, from the seminar to the schoolroom, had refocused to more internationalist perspectives not without good cause.

The retreat or rather calculated extraction from ‘kings and battles’ history was undertaken as an essential task in the expansion of the historical profession in the postwar era. The limitations of nation-centric historical chronologies was recognisable even to perceptive school pupils in the periods where it dominated private and state education. Whilst Schama lambasted the contents of Gove’s proposed curriculum as “essentially memories of A-levels circa 1965, embalmed in aspic and sprinkled with tokenism”, the realisation that historical fixation on the nation-state, elite culture, power-brokers and military campaigns was inhibiting the potential of historical understanding had been expressed even before the mid-1960s. The Orwell of the 1930s recalled the history education of his Etonian boyhood and the shortcomings of chronological periodisation: “…in 1499 you were still in the Middle Ages… and then suddenly the clock struck 1500, and you were in something called the Renaissance.”

No less a towering intellect as E.H. Carr recognised the continued blinkering effect that ‘kings and battles’ history held over students’ interpretations of historical periods when more complex historiographical debates were consuming the attention of academics, dedicating part of his classic 1961 study What Is History? to addressing the problem. It was a worthy effort to take time out from his arguments with Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin in a text adapted from the 1961 G.M. Trevelyan Lectures in order to speak almost directly to younger students. His effort was well-timed. A young Christopher Hitchens in 1962, found a life-affecting outlet of discussion in an American history teacher who “wanted to stray into the awkward territory of “modern” history, which broke the usual bounds and challenged the idea that the past was a pageant – of one damn king after another – culminating in a map of the world (still displayed in my boyhood) which showed the British Empire in majestic red.” (Hitch-22: A Memoir, p.207). In 1963, the independent historian E.P. Thompson published his classic social history, The Making of the English Working Class, made all the more celebrated for its contributions to the English historical lexicon via Thompson’s objective to rescue “the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott from the enormous condescension of posterity.” (The Making of the English Working-Class, p.13). It was to condescension that the topics set for the chop under Michael Gove’s proposed curriculum were to be lost, replaced with a reversion to the national myth-making and treehouse history which fails even at its intended purpose. As Evans put it, “The patriotic British – or for the most part English – historical narrative, envisions mainland Europe largely as the scene of British triumphs over evil foreigners… Propagating inaccurate myths about alleged British victories is no way to create a solid national identity.”

The limited perspective that I can offer is one of a student whose school years ended in the same month as the Coalition deal was brokered. Having said Goodbye to 1066 and All That (an artless literary elision I have for long lurked awaiting an opportunity to make) in May 2010, my experience can relate only to the much-maligned primary and secondary curriculum which Gove and the DfE sought keenly to hurl into the abyss in favour of the kind of school history last promoted in state schools at a time when the Union Jack still flew above colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. All that can be said for my history schooling can be bracketed to my current position – that of a BA History student at a leading research university possessing a commitment to the subject and its relevance for society. There were undoubtedly problems – any education programme which claims imperfection can be deduced without much inference to be under the control of a totalitarian state – but flaws were most common in preparation for externally set exams. Driving students to please and propitiate multiple examination boards that possess the empathetic capacity of an early experiment in A.I. robotics (“it hasn’t quite figured out ‘irony’ or ‘tears’ yet, boss”) is, as the majority of teachers in any subject will inform you, never consonant with instilling or inspiring passion.

I left school having got a better grasp what history was and how to do it than I think I would have received at any state school a century or even fifty years heretofore. I would not trade my comprehensive-wrought GCSE in History for any substitute at the Eton of Orwell or the Leys School of Christopher Hitchens; my A-Level in Modern History from a state Sixth Form College would rank among my most precious personal effects, in the “save from house fire” list close to passports and birth certificates.

Reforming the education system to accommodate for changes in culture and scholarship is a necessity that goes without saying or much need for justification. How those reforms are implemented, however, requires the careful consideration of a vast array of factors, interests and contingencies – something they teach you at the most basic level of studying history beyond the personalities of ‘great men’, and something which Michael Gove’s battle with Britain’s historians and school teahers rather callously overlooked. The work of his successors is just getting underway and the prospect of a change of government in 2015 may consign the current Parliamentary term’s education policies to the dustbin of missed opportunities. Gove’s reforms were announced without consultation, promoted with a propaganda campaign tinged by myth-making and disparagement of entire professions, watered down in the face of overwhelming opposition and eventually put on indefinite hold following Gove’s personal defeat in the reshuffle. The whole affair, like the 1914-18 War, would appear to be a great waste with unresolved outcomes and sufficient bitterness sown for a resurgence of hostilities in the coming decades.

I think the current education secretary, Nicky Morgan, would benefit from taking in a live performance of Alan Bennett’s living masterpiece The History Boys. It would certainly help relations between the DfE and history teachers if Gove’s successors were able to exercise greater use of hindsight and foresight before declaring the start of Great Crusades.

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