Here is one of my major hobby horses.
Alix has blogged on Michael Gove’s list of what should be learned in History. It is a long list of British things: the Romans civilized us, 1066, our gradually gaining democracy, the Industrial Revolution, then the whole Nazi Wars thing that seemed to dominate my GCSE’s. She finds all sorts of things missing:
Mr Gove doesn’t want children to learn about the British Empire . . . He has basically drawn his conception of a good history syllabus from that of a prep school circa 1965 . . . Nothing about European events that have impacted immediately on the history of Britain . . . Nothing about the history of Catholicism and Protestantism in this country . . . Nothing about the impacts of the industrial revolution on agriculture and traditional social patterns in rural Britain, nothing about the Corn Laws and other protectionist, er, Tory policies . . . Nothing about the crusades or any other interaction with Islam
She’s very funny, Alix: “He conceives of history as a sort of collectors’ stamp book in which you have to fill in all the little boxes with kings, queens and battles in order to “know” history, yes, very good.”
But I think she goes nowhere near far enough. The problem for me is that Gove wants that incredibly narrow thing, British history. Somehow people have got it into their heads that to make people love their countries you need to construct big myths that put their country at the centre of everything (see Civitas for an explicit endorsement of this).
Whereas I think it’s the other way round: people who are bright and have a grown-up love of their country tend to read and be aware of their history. You don’t forcefeed them myths and then find them miraculously turned into great citizens.
So it annoys the hell out of me that people can name the wives of a parochial northern European king who barely ruffled European let alone world history, but not much about someone who bestrode the whole of Eurasia, bringing down centuries-old empires wherever he went.
We live in a very special country. The fact that Britain managed to go forth, send its instutions, language and bloodstock all over the world is profoundly weird, and demands imaginative investigation. But doing the historical equivaluent of studying the wallpaper will tell us nothing about how the house got built. The really interesting question in history is: why us? Why the British, why the Europeans?
Is this because of biased history-telling – because an alien watching history from space would have spent most of his time gazing at the Far East, where just as we were recovering from our “Dark Ages” they were advancing at astonishing speed? Are Europeans intrinsically unable to comprehend these things? Is it all about geography, timber and the way the waters flowed? Or are Western institutions intrinsically better for capitalism?
The Brito-centric account of human history – even with Alix’s gaps filled in – leaves a huge amount of ignorance in its wake. And leaves us missing out on some extraordinary historians. Forget your David Starkeys and Niall Fergusons. Have you heard of Fernand Braudel? Drop everything to read The Mediterranean and just gawp at the richness and diversity of real history. Then try turning back to some turgid account of Queen Elizabeth, and you realise that you thought you’d done the 16th Century and in fact it was like spending a weekend in the Isle of Wight.
Above all, the kings-and-politicians account of history leave out the major insights of economic historians, above all Marx. Forces beyond the control of ordinary people swept history along – be they geographical (Guns germs and steel) or the shape of social institutions. With Gove’s curriculum we have precious little chance of understanding the future. Just a passport to more costume drama history.