In February, the Department of Education produced a proposal for a new history curriculum. Michael Gove brushed aside the advice he had received from professional historians and teachers, and wrote a controversial curriculum which is a chronicle of the British Isles. It has been attacked for being ‘pub quiz’ history, myopically Anglocentric, politically-motivated citizenship teaching, which shows little regard for children’s interests or whether the material is age-appropriate. The debate is raging, so we asked two of our writers to make the arguments for and against Gove’s new curriculum.
Opposing Gove’s policy
There has never been such a consensus in the history community as was provoked by Michael Gove’s educational reform proposals for the subject. Almost without exception, the historical community was condemnatory: The Royal Historical Society, History UK and the Historical Association bemoaned the lack of consultation. Even conservative historians who created the proposals were dismayed, claiming that the document they had agreed to had been dramatically altered.
The most worrying aspects of the proposals involve a nonsensical jingoism that would be comfortable in a BNP pamphlet. The focus is almost entirely on British history and its ‘positive’ impact on the world. The Cambridge historian Sir Richard Evans fairly described the curriculum as ‘a little England version of our national past’.
The initial aim is to teach pupils ‘how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the World’; in other words why Britain is ‘Great’. By any measure, that is propagandistic. The evils of Empire and colonialism are forgotten under the subtitle ‘Britain’s global impact in the nineteenth century’. Figures like Gordon of Khartoum and Clive of India are lauded as British heroes when in reality they were involved in the worst atrocities of the Empire. It is a profound concern that children as young as seven will be subject to such state indoctrination, which aims to subsume the evils of British racist colonial ventures under a patriotic sheen.
Moreover, the proposals offer an outdated, insular view of Britain totally incongruous with modernity. They claim that the causes of the Second World War were ‘appeasement, the Failure of the League of Nations and the rise of dictators’; but how can anyone understand the War without knowing Germany’s position after the First World War? Or the depression caused by the Wall Street Crash in the USA? Or the spread of Communism in Russia?
History does not exist in neat little boxes called nations. Nor is its role to cement national identities and indoctrinate a generation in British ‘greatness’. As a History and Spanish student I must say I am concerned; if Michael Gove succeeds, I fear my Spanish classes will soon be taught in English too.
Supporting Gove’s policy
Last summer, a poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft found that, rather worryingly, British children have a distinct lack of knowledge regarding British history. His findings for example, showed that only 34% of children aged 11 to 18 knew that the Battle of Britain was fought in the 1940s, whilst 43% knew that it was fought in the air.
Michael Gove’s new national curriculum, which is endorsed by 15 of the country’s leading historians, will seek to provide children with a far wider knowledge of Britain’s rich and diverse history. This will serve to achieve several goals. By placing the emphasis on British topics, children are far more likely to become interested in their history lessons.
If a pupil is taught about a topic to which he or she can relate, then it can be expected that that pupil will be far more engaged, and hopefully more inquisitive. Furthermore, by charting history chronologically, children will be able to develop a far more coherent and manageable historical timeline.
Secondly, it will help children to develop a real sense of national identity. David Priestland has recently argued that the document is ‘depressingly narrow…[and] resolutely insular’, and that in today’s multicultural society, children need a greater knowledge of global history. Surely then, this is exactly what children will learn if they are being taught British history; arguably no other country can claim to have had as much of a global impact as Britain.
Priestland, and others, seem to assume that history lessons will now consist of nothing more than patriotic teachers harking on about topics that only concern Britain. This is not the case. Clearly, there are serious problems with the way history is taught in our schools, and, whether we like it or not, urgent reforms are needed if we are to renew interest in our discipline. Michael Gove’s controversial plans are by no means perfect, but they are a step in the right direction.
Extracts from the proposed new History Curriculum:
“Pupils should be taught about the lives of significant individuals in Britain’s past who have contributed to our nation’s achievements – scientists such as Isaac Newton or Michael Faraday, reformers such as Elizabeth Fry or William Wilberforce, medical pioneers such as William Harvey or Florence Nightingale, or creative geniuses such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Christina Rossetti.
Britain and her Empire, including:
•Wolfe and the conquest of Canada
•Clive of India
•Competition with France and the Jacobite rebellion
•the American Revolution
The Second World War, including:
•causes such as appeasement, the failure of the League of Nations and the rise of the Dictators
•the global reach of the war – from Arctic Convoys to the Pacific Campaign
•the roles of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin
•Nazi atrocities in occupied Europe and the unique evil of the Holocaust.”
From the Department for Education