It is now almost two years since the defeat of Michael Gove’s intensely controversial draft history curriculum, following a public outcry and the near unanimous opposition of history teachers. Yet as Richard Evans predicted, the “history wars” seem to be far from over. Once again a selective, celebratory, Anglo-centric distortion of history is being harnessed to serve a political agenda. While Gove, in his new role as Justice Secretary, is preparing to defy the European Court of Human Rights, some of the early supporters of his draft history curriculum are busy campaigning under the banner Historians for Britain for ‘a renegotiated deal with the EU reinforced by an in/out referendum’, using a narrative of ‘British’ exceptionalism.
Gove’s agenda was equally explicit: he wanted history teaching to ‘celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world’ and to portray Britain as ‘a beacon of liberty for others to emulate’. He probably hoped that this would appeal to a nostalgic conception of national identity held by the Tory right, uneasy with multicultural Britain, and to potential UKIP voters. He may also have been appealing to grey voters, worried that what their grandchildren were studying in history bore little resemblance to the teleological list of perceived political triumphs – Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution, the Battle of Waterloo – which they remembered learning by rote in the 1960s. His failed attempt to drive this agenda through and discredit history teachers was supported by some of the very same academics now in the Historians for Britain group.*
Gove’s curriculum prioritised imparting ‘the concept of nation and of a nation’s history’ to five-to seven-year-olds. National exceptionalism and triumphalism were at its heart, with a constant emphasis on ‘how Britain influenced the world’ to the exclusion of the reverse. Less edifying examples of that influence, such as the Opium Wars, were omitted. Slavery was left out of the section entitled ‘the development of a modern economy’ and was instead dealt with under the heading ‘the slave trade and the abolition of slavery’, implicitly giving both equal weight.
The omissions, bias and distortions of Gove’s history draft history curriculum were embarrassingly obvious. Probably the most comprehensive demolition job was performed by Gove’s own former adviser on the history curriculum, Simon Schama, who urged history teachers to refuse to teach what he describe as an ‘insulting and offensive’, ‘pedantic and utopian’ curriculum which resembled a ‘ridiculous shopping list’. By then most academic historians who had initially come out in favour of the curriculum had gone quiet.
Gove insisted on a ‘coherent, chronological narrative’ of the nation from the Stone Age but, just like Historians for Britain, dodged the awkward question of which nation was meant. The Scots, Irish and Welsh were consequently marginalised or misrepresented as casually as non-white ethnic groups, women and the poor. This approach raised the same question about motivation that has been raised regarding Historians for Britain. Given such refusal to recognise realities that are inconvenient to the political agenda being advanced, can the true priority be a genuine evidence based discussion about the past?
The emphasis placed by Gove and his supporters’ on knowledge rather than skills – the learning of “facts” at the expense of critical thought and source analysis – reinforced this concern. But perhaps they underestimated the non-partisan intellectual habits that current methods of history teaching in the UK instil. History pupils, trained to spot bias, question motivation and subject claims to scrutiny, were able to see through this politicisation of history immediately. Many were outraged and campaigned to defeat it. They were able to see that as soon as the past is manipulated in support of a cause, history loses all academic integrity. The obvious truth of this makes it likely that Round Two of the history wars will conclude in the same way as Round One. Historians for Britain’s attempt to hijack and manipulate the public understanding of history to serve a transparently political end will fail to convince and will meet the same fate as Gove’s.
Katherine Edwards is a history teacher based in Surrey
* It seems that eight of the original members of Historians for Britain were also among the fifteen signatories to a letter to the Times supporting Gove’s history curriculum.
These links show how close leading members of Historians for Britain were to Gove rewrite of the history curriculum and/or how they gave it their support or helped Gove’s attempts to discredit history teachers while attempting to impose his draft history curriculum.
David Starkey: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/education/article3700452.ece