The Con-Dems have a dream of one nation united by a common national story. Their attempts to co-opt history teaching to this end must be stopped.
The Con-Dem government has a dream. It is one where the nation comes together under the Tories’ paternalist leadership, where loyally participating citizens dutifully suffer and work together, collectively rejecting the asocial elements who refuse to get involved.
In this dream there is no place for trade unionism, collectivism or solidarity. The ideal citizen will be obedient and respectful of the rich and powerful, and blame their own inadequacies for any disparity of wealth. Michael Gove has made it pretty clear that education is to play a key role in making the dream reality.
The problem for Gove is that they are cutting the very education system that they want to manipulate, and most teachers, as well as students, their parents and the wider community see the Con-Dems as the wreckers of education rather than its saviours. This is what lies behind Gove’s use of cheap nationalist populism, as well as the offer of a return to ‘real education’, so diminished by New labour, to get educators on the Tories’ side.
The recent Better History Group conference in London makes this all too clear. The conference brought together teachers from secondary, further and higher education backgrounds to look at the very serious issue of how to provide a better history curriculum; and to try to form an agreement on what history will benefit our students. The conference was hosted by Cambridge Assessment (OCR Exam Board) and was led off by Chris Skidmore MP (Conservative) for Kingswood, and part-time lecturer in Early Modern History. His argument drew attention to the decline in the number of students studying history at GCSE and the ‘apartheid’ on this issue between the state and public sector.
In private schools the percentage of students taking history at GCSE is over ninety, while in the state sector it is more like forty per cent, going down to just eleven per cent at Knowsley on Merseyside. He went on to argue that history is vitally important for society at a number of levels. We can learn lessons from the past; we can understand why we are where we are today; and the study of history involves the acquisition of highly important analytical skills that are transferable to other areas of intellectual growth. There was little disagreement on the importance of history to the nation - apart from on one key point. Skidmore bemoaned the fact that our kids are leaving school without knowing ‘our island story’.
The old demons were wheeled out - schools teach too much on Henry VIII and Hitler and they don’t know who Winston Churchill and Adam Smith were; and schools want to try to tempt kids into history by in-depth studies of ‘juicy nuggets’ like Jack the Ripper or the seventeenth century witch craze. He finished his piece with an appeal for a return to ‘British narrative history, where students will know the key dates and events of British history with a view to understanding British identity’. Not surprisingly Simon Schama, that right-of-centre storyteller, is lined up to help rewrite the history curriculum. This is the opposite of ‘Better History’.
After taking a few questions which all drew out the objections to teaching a national ideology rather than history, Skidmore left. The conference was now addressed by Sean Lang of Anglia Ruskin College, and who has worked as an advisor to former Tory Shadow Minister of Education David Willetts. Here it became clear to all what the purpose of the conference actually was. Sean Lang battled hard to persuade delegates that teaching a British narrative would produce better historians by giving students the sweep of history from the Romans to Cameron. He argued historical understanding depended on accurate knowledge and being able to understand ‘how it all fits together’. He righty argued that history was being sidelined by the options students take at just thirteen years of age, and that some schools persuade the kids to drop a subject most of them actually like, in favour of one that is easier.
Thus many schools teach vocational qualifications which hold the same worth as two GCSEs such as BTECs (Business and Technology Education Council) in order to improve their ratings in the league tables, and guide students into areas of study where they can more easily reach their ‘targets’. But then it came to the whole point of the conference - the deal that was possible with Michael Gove.
Gove hates, as do most history teachers, the way history has been made into a component of a general humanities qualification at GCSE. He also wants to get rid of Citizenship - presumably because it can be about rights as well as duties - and this is where history comes in. A deal could be done to give teaching history a guaranteed one hour a week in schools by using it in place of Citizenship. This is, however, on condition that history helps to fulfil the key criteria of the citizenship agenda, and distil a sense of ‘Britishness’ into students through knowledge of ‘our traditions of democracy, tolerance and fair play’. This immediately conjured up for delegates an image of David Cameron saying, ‘We are all in it together. Tolerate the bankers’ bonuses and let’s cut back hardest on the undeserving poor. It’s only fair’.
History teachers need to nail this nonsense by making the defence of history a defence of wider education, or else it will allow the Tories to further indulge their prejudices and play off one subject against another. There is little doubt they would like to see the back of subjects like sociology, for example, which is popular, but produces little in terms of the outcome businessmen want. We do want more history, and more foreign languages, and more art - we want better education. We also want an end to league tables and targets that enhance institutional reputation at the expense of the real human beings beneath the statistics.
Funnily enough the conference turned out to be a brilliant success, as teachers ripped into the idea of working with the Tories who are denying university places to working class kids, introducing more academies and ‘Free’ schools and taking away the principle of education as a right of the individual. It is worth distilling the points made at the conference into a coherent defence of real history.
Firstly, the outcome of teaching history should not be the patriotic and dutiful citizen, but an independent thinker. We should not aim to give students ‘the full historical sweep of our island story’, but to give them instead the interest and understanding that will motivate them and enable them to investigate history for themselves. Gove talks about British history being ‘our nation’s birthright’, but our birthright is to a fully funded and progressive education system equally available to all. Within this system we have the right to use history to debunk national myths, explain why so many live in poverty and a few live with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, where racism comes from and why wars break out.
Gove’s ‘island story’ will straight jacket history and make it every bit as dull as a Tory Party think tank. Good historians should know the value of fact, theory and argument. It is overwhelmingly through collaboration and through debate and disagreement that we come to make reliable historical judgements. That is why history is fun, and our kids have a right - a birth right - to fun!
Secondly, although a narrative outline is something all history teachers employ to introduce a topic; this is never the real prize in the classroom. Narrative history is boring (which is why Gove wants ‘inspirational teachers’) and linear. A narrative is, in the words of Henry Ford: ‘one damn thing after another’; whereas real history is ‘one thing leads to another’. E.H. Carr put this clearly when he wrote: ‘The study of history is a study of causes’. Historians rarely argue about chronology, but they argue forever about the key causes of events. This is why all the great historians are able to reveal history as a dynamic process - from Thucydides writing about the Peloponnesian War to Ian Kershaw writing about the Third Reich. Compare these masters of the craft to right wing ideologue Niall Ferguson’s book, ‘Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World’ and the point becomes clear. Not once in the entire book does Ferguson examine different theories on why imperialism was adopted by Britain. He simply wants to assert that the British Empire was overall a force for good, because it spread the joys of capitalism to the rest of the planet. It would be nice to get the opinion of the native Tasmanians on this issue, but unfortunately we can’t because the British wiped out the entire population of Tasmania. Ferguson was Gove’s first choice historian to rewrite the history curriculum.
To get kids interested in history we do not always tell them the story. There are some events of world importance that are not centred on Britain. For example, the Russian Revolution is possibly the most important event in the twentieth century. Is it wrong to involve the kids in this at the expense of the story about King Alfred burning the cakes? Furthermore the kids’ own intellectual curiosity has to be a factor in what we teach. Why did the Holocaust happen? Why did Henry VIII have six wives and chop some of their heads off? Investigating causes of big events is what makes history utterly compelling. If we want to make history appealing we have to focus on great events of world significance.
The last point is the most important. Delegates at the conference felt very strongly that they would not subscribe to teaching a right wing nationalistic narrative. Sean Lang tried to argue that this narrative could be liberating, but this defies the evidence from history. All vicious dictatorships alter history into a story that underlines their own indispensible role. That is why Stalin lied about his relationship with Lenin. That is why Hitler lied about his role in World War One. That is why Mussolini knocked down beautiful mediaeval architecture in Rome to reveal Augustan remains that would connect the Roman legions with the fascist Black Shirts in the mythological history Italian fascism created.
We would all want our kids to know more about British history, but this investigation should be led by historians who understand that the process of investigation is as important as the result. I hope this brief article will act as a rallying point to bring all teachers to the defence of both history and education. For me the fight to defend the integrity of history is inseparable from the fight to defend the NHS from privatisation and public sector pensions. We have to oppose the Con-Dem cuts and ideological attacks as one. I know this is true because history tells us that working class people only ever get what they fight for.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.