Gove and All That

I tore Michael Gove a new one about his shocking “proper narrative of history” before the election, so I approached the end product of his feverish patriotic vision (opens as a pdf) with due dread. I emerged with a few specific objections and bafflements that I still might write about, but for now, the headlines.

The bad news

This is still, in its emphasis and viewpoint, an insular account of Britain – no, England. It is insular in the “sceptr’d isle” sense, and Shakespeare, puzzlingly though people quote him in these  contexts, wasn’t a historian. Is this educationally backward? Actually, it needn’t be. There is a case to be made for the teaching of a single state’s chronological history; it gives you a sense of broad sweep, of long-term change, of themes that abide and those that drop away. If it’s taught well, that is. If it’s taught as Gove’s syllabus encourages, it runs the risk of being on an intellectual level with philately – monarchs and facts collected and pressed into a pre-printed album whose only justification for being so ordered is tautological; because it’s there. Prof Sir Richard Evans strikes the single most telling point against the syllabus I’ve read:

Worst of all, the document gives no sense at all of the fact that history is an academic discipline, like chemistry or physics. The preamble says, correctly enough, that “a high-quality history education equips pupils to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgment”. But this is then completely forgotten in the rest of the document, like the similar lip-service given in the preamble to the need to “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history”.

Far more central to the curriculum’s purpose is the programmatic statement that “pupils should be taught about key dates and events, and significant individuals”.

You could learn every single damn thing on this syllabus in a “facts and dates” sense and still not have a bloody clue about how to study history. Still, you’d probably do a lot better in those history quizzes for the under-40s the Daily Mail regularly uses to exercise its readers’ blood-pressure, and since quite a lot of Tory policy seems to be formulated in response to tabloid outrage perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is no exception.

Incidentally, it also continues the error that history syllabuses already commit; shackled by its devotion to chronology as ideology, it puts the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval history in early, at KS2. Because it’s easy and basic, you see, because it happened a long time ago, and people were really simple then, weren’t they. Whereas the twentieth century is really complicated and grown-up, and people have more complex motives nowadays. And we wonder why medievalism is represented on our screens by blubbering hobbyists.

The good news.

It isn’t the Nazis, the Nazis, Henry VIII and the Nazis. See my notes about chronology and narrative above.

It’s considerably better than Gove’s original tossed-off-for-the-media version I fisked in 2009. Well, it would have to be, frankly. Someone who has glanced at the contents page of a medieval history book has had at the pitiful opening lines of the original. The Enlightenment has appeared. The Empire is no longer happening offstage to someone else. There is some economic and social history in there, though due to the constraining nature of the “proper narrative” this somewhat alternates with political history rather than complementing it. You could learn by this syllabus and have the impression that political and constitutional history stops at the beginning of the fourteenth century so that the Black Death can take place and duly work out its social and economic consequences, and the kings and battles pick up again a century later with the Wars of the Roses. In between the guys just kind of hung out.

Sorry, I was on good news, wasn’t I? The other good news, or rather the non-bad news, is that as ideological history syllabuses go, Gove is not the only guilty party in this discussion. He is a rubber-lipped berk who would prefer us to swallow uncritical Boys’ Own patriotism whole, and Evans points out that his syllabus names Nelson and Wellington and doesn’t name Paine and Wilkes. But this is telling of the fact that Gove’s opponents have been drawn into the individuals-as-totems game too – Paine and Wilkes are as much political statements as Nelson and Wellington, if you care to take any of them that way. On the Mary Seacole controversy, it seems to me that Guy Walters is drawing something of a false distinction between her “real” historical importance and her status as a mixed race British woman of some contemporary renown – the latter is a valid fact in itself and might well be worth teaching.

But actually I rear back from the idea that we need to get upset about any particular individual being on the syllabus or off it. Because it really shouldn’t be making that much difference to your ability to teach a period of history whether or not you have a list of names to choose from to illustrate your core themes. When people get into conniptions over the status of totemic individuals, I start to wonder where the hell the history has gone, and who are these supposed lackwits in our classrooms who apparently can’t be trusted to comprehend or teach it without being shown a series of flashcards. Which is exactly how I feel about Gove’s whole approach, really.

And back to the bad news.

So the worst thing about all this for me is that the damn syllabus is there at all. One berk’s proper narrative is another berk’s ideological indoctrination. And while the ideological cherry-picking would simply move to a lower level if we had a Swedish-style 20-page curriculum, I’d really much rather it was there than in the hands of any government minister, of any stripe. If history teaches us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t let political overlords use history syllabuses for their own hardly disinterested purposes.

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