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.

You Tenured to me? Bart Ehrman’s brilliant insights into academic life for outsiders

Ahoy-hoy!

Here’s a link to something anybody interested in becoming an historian or an academic scholar in the humanities of any description should read – the full post requires membership of the Bart Ehrman Blog to read, but trust me, it’s worth it just for the posts Ehrman puts out over a weekend!

http://ehrmanblog.org/what-counts-for-tenure/

Before the first ‘original’ post of the day, I’d like to make use of the astonishing number of followers which  HistoryJack appears to have acquired (in excess of 300 according to the hosting site!) to share and promote the work of one of my favorite historians, Professor Bart. D. Ehrman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Being a non-classicist and previously unlearned in theology or religious history, I owe a tremendous debt to Dr. Ehrman for his popular texts which open up Biblical Studies and particularly critical scholarship in New Testament Studies to outsiders and laypeople. His New York Times bestsellers *Misquoting Jesus* and *How Jesus Became God* were two books which drew in this previously modernist-only history student into the dizzying world of modern biblical scholarship.
What makes Ehrman one of my favorite scholars – I’ll be doing a more lengthily post soon explaining why I’ve selected Ehrman and his own blog as model for my plans with HistoryJack – is that unlike other great historians and philosophers whose best work remains isolated in the walls of academe and buried in impenetrable technical prose, Ehrman has allotted vast quantities of time the past two decades to bring the findings of modern New Testament Studies to the public in accessible and enjoyable formats. His trade books and public debates have probably done more to advance biblical literacy and knowledge of the basic methods used by New Testament historians in recent years than the collective fruits of America’s vast industry of televangelism and Hollywood religious epics (I’m looking at you, Mel).
In the blog post above, Ehrman details what people should expect on the dreaded yet coveted Tenure Track at American universities. He discusses the roles new scholars are expected to play at both ‘research’ and ‘teaching’ colleges and how the system has changed during his career. For undergrads who have sought out information about graduate careers themselves, this is a vital insight from someone with decades in the field of research in a highly specialised subject (God forbid I should try to master Ancient Hebrew, Classical Greek, Koine Greek, Coptic and Aramaic to name the essentials) and who has an impressive record of communicating complex scholarly topics to the general public.
So get on over to the Bart Ehrman Blog, sign yourself up and get ready for some of the best biblical scholarship and history popularisation out there!

Hello! The Inaugural Post of the HistoryJack Blog!

Greetings to everyone!

Perhaps you are visiting this blog for the first time or revisiting after many years of subscription; I have to consider the teleology of the blog and foresight is important even if the use of history for futurism is bunk. This inaugural post will detail what I am aiming to accomplish with this blog as a venue for historical inquiry, discussion and public debate on matters of interest to myself and what I hope will consist of a much wider community of history enthusiasts within the academic world and without.

This blog has been established as a hub for my historical ideas and perspectives on everything from advances and changes in the Philosophy of History, to education policy (particularly regarding school and college History curricula!), to reviews and commentaries on newly-published books and articles, to art, culture, science and much else! Politics and its intersection with History is an inevitability – G.R. Elton’s hope and vision of an objective divorce between the historian’s personality and their investigation is long the way of the dodo and the telegram – so excerpts and interactions with political blogs will be a common occurrence here. Some of the finest contemporary political commentary comes from historians and history graduates – most notably from Professor Sir Richard J. Evans in light of the recent heated debates over British school history curricula, as well as the visible, celebrated and often controversial insights of Sir David Starkey, Niall Ferguson, Mary Beard and the late Eric Hobsbawm. And who could forget that Owen Jones went from being a 2007 Oxford MA History postgrad to being voted the Fabian Society’s “most influential left-wing thinker of the year” in under four years?

The areas of historical interest that I will be focusing most of the blog’s attention upon for the foresseable near future will be broadly as follows:

  • Controversies in Biblical Studies and their intractable relationship to debates in the Philosophy of Religion as well as cultural conflict between religious apologetics and the ‘New Atheist’ movement.
  • Public understanding of History and the role of historians in increasing access to historical inquiry and methodology in addition to traditional transmission of received knowledge via popular history books and broadcast media.
  • History and education, particularly school curricula in Britain, the United States, Japan and post-conflict states including the Balkan nations. Memory Studies and the relationship between education authorities and political institutions will be a subject of particular curiosity – what role does the teaching of history itself at school and higher level play in historical memory?
  • Historiography and proposed solutions to methodological fragmentation and over-diversification of History as an academic field.
  • Multimedia projects, esp. YouTube videos expanding the blog’s capacity for reaching people interested in history and the role of historiography in the modern world.

This, in addition to commentary on current affairs and culture will be taking up the majority of space on this blog if my intentions for it are effectual in any way!

So thank you kindly for your interest in the blog and I hope that upon revisiting this post, my first tentative step into the blogosphere, it will be with a hindsight informed by many fruitful and insightful postings. Any suggestions, criticisms or advice that you think could help this blog in these early days will be greatly appreciated. Once things are off the ground and reaching a steady altitude, please feel free to share the blog far and wide!

Thank you most humbly and welcome to the HistoryJack blog!