The History Curriculum.

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.

Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm a mid 40s, former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

9 thoughts on “The History Curriculum.

  1. I could not agree more with you that parochialism and personification are two terrible mistakes often made by those who design the history programs. However, I believe there is no such thing as a good program that could be chosen by the government and applied happily everywhere over Britian.

    Au contraire. I can imagine a totaly Englo-centric curriculum taugh by a knowledgeable and passionate professor that could be wonderful. Telling the story of Henry VIII could be a bore or a rare insight into a wealth of important matters. I just believe it should be up to the professor and its public (be it the students or their parents) to decide what to teach.

    Teaching a class about the history of India before colonisation maybe a total flop if most the students are from West African descent. On the other hand teaching about the history of London (or Liverpool, or whatever other place) could be a unique door for the students into a world of knowledge and the appriciation of history.

    Gove’s proposal is ridiculously politics-centric as well. If the teacher is into that sort of things, why not, but if he ain’t, maybe it would be a good idea to teach other sort of histories (economic, cultural, art, etc.). Hell, why even teach history. I personally think it is important, but after all some other parent may want his child to learn more about litterature/math/Chinese/etc.

    At the end of the day, the message to Mr Gove should be: “keep off and let me decide for myself”.

    PS: I don’t agree that history lessons have no impact on one’s patriotism. Just think of the hords of little Frenchy taught about “nos ancetres les Gaulois” by the Republic and who died like idiots in the trenches.

  2. Hi Ben, how are you?

    I like the radical liberalism of your proposals. Trouble is: when the public hears about the odd rogue school doing badly, they’ll blame the Minister for not enforcing a curriculum. But you’re right – good passionate teaching would make the subject matter far less important (and they have to start somewhere)



  3. Gove’s lists also seems to include very little cultural history or history of ideas, which are the areas where the biggest leaps have been made in recent years. A lot of historical work is now about trying to reconstruct the mental universe of someone living in the past, in contrast to the kind of event driven history that Mr Gove seems to be so enamored.

  4. The problem with history is that there is so damn much of it its impossible to please everyone, if Ben’s suggesting that teachers be allowed to teach what they love then I’m all for it. Raw passion for your subject shines though and there’s few better teaching techniques.

    I understand the idea that Tories want “national” history. Creating false national histories is how nations were created (I’m thinking Anderson’s Imagined Communities), and its kinda logical to want to recreate that if you’re worried about some sort of national decline. But utterly counter productive of course. Precisely because it will involve teachers teaching things which they know are untrue, fabrication or are full of holes it will fail.

  5. I think the major point about Gove is that he both wants to be the de-centraliser, and also the re-tradiationaliser (I challenge anyoine to find an uglier word than that). Julian Astle should be publishing a challenging document including this theme very shortly.

  6. Giles you left out of your account the bits about the British empire being a pretty fucking horrific disaster for many dark people around the world. The why us question is impt, but so are the normative legacies we have left.

    You’re not alone in not mentioning this, mind. Part of our shared collective identity rests upon denial and glorification about Britain and her gory past.

    I blogged this ages ago about the bnp, education and history. Can’t link as don’t know how to use iPhone properly yet.

  7. You are right – you can’t mention everything though. If you ever want to have some fun, go over to Brackenworld and work out what his version of “history” is.

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