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Ah, the olden days!

Another history war under another conservative government. Frank Bongiorno reports from London

Frank Bongiorno 5 June 2011 2258 words

Britain’s education secretary Michael Gove (right, with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg) has complained of the “tragedy” that had seen “the sundering of our society from its past.” Cabinet Office/Flickr

“DADDY teaches big children about the olden days.” My five-year-old daughter’s description of what her father does for a living – working as a historian in a university – is probably as good as any other. It’s less clear whether her account would satisfy critics of the teaching of history in English schools.

In a country whose education system remains dominated by tests, targets and tables, historical understanding even among children of her tender age comes under close and frequent scrutiny. According to the National Curriculum for England, by the age of seven most students should be able to “show their developing sense of chronology by using terms concerned with the passing of time” – including “before,” “after” and “a long time ago” – “by placing events and objects in order, and by recognising that their own lives are different from the lives of people in the past.” They should be “beginning to recognise that there are reasons why people in the past acted as they did,” starting “to identify some of the different ways in which the past is represented” and using information “to answer questions about the past on the basis of simple observations.”

These laudable goals will be achieved by examining changes in their own and their family’s lives, as well as the lives of people living “in the more distant past” in their local area or elsewhere in Britain. They should go on to learn about significant people and events from British and world history. One suggested event is the Gunpowder Plot; but it’s unclear whether five- and six-year-olds will be introduced to the finer points of disembowelment.

The English – and this is a curriculum only for the English – are fortunate that, unlike their counterparts across the Irish Sea in Ulster, they can contemplate the teaching of the Gunpowder Plot without worrying whether it might foster the kinds of community tension likely to prompt a modern-day Guy Fawkes to try blowing something or somebody up. Nonetheless, the debate over the teaching of history in English schools is haunted by the fear of national fragmentation – the kind of fragmentation that might cause a British born-and-bred Muslim to strap on a bomb and take a ride on the Tube. The popular US-based British historian Simon Schama advocates “a truly capacious British history” which “will not be the feeder of identity politics but its dissolvent.”

Schama is actually one of the more sagacious contributors to this debate, but I still find this particular view of the role of history in schools abhorrent. It’s not the proper role of history, nor of history teaching, to dissolve identity politics. Nor should its primary function be to foster national identity, or promote community belonging – another of Schama’s claims for its importance. Yet this is the weight school history is being made to bear, not so much in the mainly sensible curriculum documents produced by official England, still less among real teachers and students in real classrooms in real schools – but in the speeches of politicians and the posturing of a few celebrity historians.

The celebrity historian is so ubiquitous in this country that I sometimes wonder whether the subject’s advocates shouldn’t make more of the admittedly remote possibility of becoming rich and famous. Perhaps someone should start an X Factor–type history talent quest to locate the Simon Schamas, Niall Fergusons and Lucy Worsleys of the future. The Tudor historian and television presenter David Starkey, sometimes described as the “rudest man in Britain,” would be an ideal judge, making Simon Cowell seem a kitten by comparison. (Starkey complained last year about “pretty” female historians who showed off on their book covers and always seemed to have first names ending in “a.”)

Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, has been rightly scathing about the impoverishment of debate about school history by politicians across the political spectrum. Nonetheless, it’s Conservatives who have been responsible for the latest round of impoverishment. First, there was the love-in between Michael Gove, the education secretary, and Niall Ferguson, now a Harvard professor, at the Guardian Hay Festival in May last year. After Ferguson laid out his vision for school history – which would involve teaching students why over the last 500 years the West came to dominate the rest of the world – Gove, who was in the audience, asked, “My question is, will Harvard let you spend more time in Britain to help us design a more exciting and engaging history curriculum?” Ferguson said he would be spending the next academic year in London and was “looking forward to your call.”

It’s unclear whether the call came, but in a recent interview Ferguson seemed pleased to be returning to the United States: “Who wants to stick around to be sneered at when you can actually be appreciated?” But one effect of the exchange between Ferguson and Gove was to set off a controversy over whether the Tories would be letting one of their favourites loose on the National History Curriculum. Would British schoolchildren be indoctrinated in the virtues of the British Empire? The left went apoplectic, not least because of their particular loathing of Ferguson, who was described by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman as “a poster-boy for big stories about big empire, his books and broadcasting weaving Boys’ Own-style tales about the British charging into the jungle and jolly well sorting out the natives.” (An anonymous critic was more forthright: “He has the kind of face you want to punch.”) It was erroneously reported that yet another conservative British historian resident in the United States, Andrew Roberts, the author of the execrable A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, much admired by George W. Bush, would also be advising the Tories. Only Gove’s announcement that Schama would be advising the government “on how we can put British history at the heart of a revived national curriculum” put an end to this silliness.

Unfortunately, however, that speech set off silliness of another sort, for Gove also complained of the “tragedy” that had seen “the sundering of our society from its past.” Children were “growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of the United Kingdom.” The current curriculum, he said, denied “children the opportunity to hear our island story. Children are given a mix of topics at primary, a cursory run through Henry the Eighth and Hitler at secondary and many give up the subject at fourteen, without knowing how the vivid episodes of our past become a connected narrative.”

THERE’S much in these comments that will be familiar to Australians from their own “history wars,” which in recent years have included battles fought over history in schools. In her book History’s Children, Anna Clark discussed the rising sense of panic among political and media elites since the early 1990s caused by a sense that children were growing up ignorant of Australian history. The lack of a “connected narrative” became a particular favourite of John Howard during the twilight years of his administration, when he worried over the “fragmented stew of ‘themes’ and ‘issues’” that he claimed was a feature of classroom teaching.

Even more than Howard’s interventions in these matters, Gove’s have been largely unencumbered by known facts about the teaching of school history. For instance, he has repeated the urban myth that the only subjects taught in English schools are the Tudors and the Nazis. A recent report from the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (usually referred to as Ofsted) implicitly rejected Gove’s central claim, dismissing as “myth” the belief that “too little British history is taught in secondary schools.” Students spend considerable time studying it and know a great deal about the things they had studied. British history was “neglected” only in the sense that too much attention was given to England at the expense of the rest of the British Isles.

News of an imbalance between British and world history should come as no surprise, for it is mandated in the National History Curriculum. Alongside a local history study (which will necessarily be British), the study of Ancient Greece and the study of one other ancient civilisation from elsewhere in the world, students between the ages of eight and eleven are required to look at Roman Britain, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, the Tudor age and Britain either in the Victorian age or since 1930. From twelve to fourteen they must study British history from 1066 through to 1900, as well as some European and world history.

The picture after the age of fourteen is less rosy. History becomes optional at this stage, a cause of complaint among history teachers. Nonetheless, 30 per cent of students still take it, making it one of the most popular options. And those who do take it in their senior years are required to complete a substantial component of British history: at least 25 per cent.

When I attended a debate on school history organised by the Historical Association last July, there was much stress among the speakers – mainly teachers and academics – on learning history as a “right.” If this is so, England is still a long way from achieving equal rights. After the age of fourteen, you are most likely to study history if you attend a private school, and least likely if enrolled at one of the newer academy schools. The latter operate outside the ordinary structure of the government school system, usually with a combination of government money and private sponsorship, and they were often set up as replacements for ordinary high schools deemed to be failing. They are not bound by the National Curriculum and in some cases have reduced the amount of history they offer even to younger pupils. They are also more likely to deploy non-specialists to teach history. In schools’ struggle to rise up the all-important school league tables, history often finds itself displaced by maths and English. Indeed, the emphasis on school rankings means that only the more able students even in comprehensive schools are encouraged by their academic advisers to take history after they have turned fourteen, since it is seen as a demanding option.

The government is well aware of this problem of unequal access and the marginal status of history in academy schools, but it is a point that receives no attention when history warriors such as Gove and Ferguson go into battle. Nor do they draw much attention to Ofsted findings that consistently point to the high quality of history teaching in most schools. Teachers felt they were being told how to suck eggs when Ferguson advised them to enliven their classes by using technologies such as video games and television. Many have been using technologies like these for years.

It’s much easier to shoot the messenger – Ofsted – as Ferguson did when he accused it of being “in deep denial about the damage its beloved new history has done.” Ofsted’s most recent report was based on inspections of 166 primary and secondary schools. It’s unclear how many schools Ferguson visited.

No one contends that the teaching of history in English schools is ideal in every respect. Ofsted found that in the earlier years of school students often knew about particular events but could not place them in a longer narrative. It also recognised that changes to the broader curriculum sometimes saw history crowded out. Too few students are studying history during their more mature school years because of the failure to make it compulsory beyond the age of fourteen, while those who do continue sometimes find themselves working over subject matter already studied in earlier years.

There are real pedagogical and conceptual issues at stake in the debates over the history curriculum. But criticisms of school history from the political right are only nominally about educational or historiographical matters. As in Australia, history in schools is a magnet for a much broader set of anxieties about young people, nationhood and citizenship. The demand for a coherent and unified historical narrative, full of facts, also works symbolically, as a call for a more coherent and unified nation. Richard Evans perceives in it an effort “to turn history in our schools into a vehicle of crude nationalist indoctrination.”

Conservatives want a coherent historical narrative; but only so long as they get to write it themselves. Narratives don’t emerge naturally from the facts of the past; facts never speak for themselves. One role of a history education is to teach students that history is about the posing of difficult questions, and that historians often disagree about what is worth asking. They also have an unsettling habit of disagreeing about answers. Indeed, even the construction of the most anodyne chronology will involve choices with large implications, both for historical understanding and for politics. •

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