It is difficult to know how to take recent reports that Niall Ferguson has been recruited to overhaul, or to help overhaul, the history syllabus in schools. For a start it seems an odd way for the new education secretary, Michael Gove, to announce it, from the audience at a talk given by Ferguson at the Hay Literary Festival last month. It clearly took Ferguson by surprise: ‘I am looking forward to your call.’ It sounds as if it was a spur-of-the-moment idea of Gove’s, taken without consultation, which was surely improper. Ferguson’s enthusiasm for the idea is hardly less so, bearing in mind his lack of experience in this field. If I had been asked to do something like this (fat chance!) I would have turned it down on the grounds that I don’t know enough about the teaching of history in schools. Teachers are the experts here. According to reports, Ferguson was basing his ideas of how teachers use the syllabus on a talk with ‘one teacher’, and on the experience of his own children; at British state schools presumably, otherwise their accounts would be worth nothing at all. (My own children’s experience 10 to 15 years ago, incidentally, and possibly equally unrepresentatively, was very different.)
It is also unclear whether Ferguson is to be appointed in a key role, or as merely one of a number of advisers representing a range of historical approaches and views. If the latter, I’d have no objection. What is slightly worrying, however, is Gove’s enthusiasm for his kind of history: ‘I am a great fan of Ferguson.’ Ferguson draws his fan base mainly from neo-conservatives who like in particular his (qualified) defence of British imperialism, to the extent of urging the United States to mimic it. This of course is highly controversial outside those circles, not only among the British Empire’s critics, but also among those who find his concentration on British agency – ‘How Britain made the Modern World’ is the extraordinary subtitle of his Empire book – simplistic at the very least. (I have the same objection to those who claim that the European empires buggered up the modern world.)
There are further signs of these views in his Hay talk: his insistence that the ‘big story’ that should be taught in schools is ‘the rise of western domination of the world’ over the last 500 (sic) years, for example (has he not read John Darwin or Jack Goody?); and his put-down of those in his audience who claimed he ignored history’s oppressed as a ‘militant tendency’. It should always be remembered in this connection that Ferguson is not really much of an imperial historian. He has done little if any original research in the field. His real interest and expertise are in financial history – the growth of capitalism in particular – which may be what prevents his seeing the empire's human side, including its 'oppressed'.
We’ve been through something like this before. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher took a particular interest in the history part of the National Curriculum, which she was the first to foist on schools, mainly in order to make it more fact-based (dates, kings and queens, battles) and patriotic. To this end she appointed those she considered ‘trusties’ on the committees that drew up the plan – conservative historians and elite school teachers, chaired by a peer. When they got down to work, however, they rejected her ideas in favour of the more critical, skill-centred and geographically broad-based teaching that eventually found expression, however flawed, in the National History Syllabus. (Thatcher was livid. It’s in her memoirs.) This was not new. The majority of British (or at any rate English) school teachers, and also academic historians, have always rejected the idea that the purpose of teaching and writing history was to celebrate the history of one’s own country, in order to foster national identity and pride. This has long been a complaint of right-wing politicians, who generally attribute it to the teachers’ (and writers’) left-wing bias. In fact it arises naturally from the subject and the discipline.
The worry in present circumstances is that Gove’s enthusiasm for Ferguson’s work is evidence of a wish on his part to re-run that battle, in order to impose a particular reading of British history on schools. My objection to this would be the same, incidentally, if it were my own interpretation that was being imposed. The real and best purpose of history teaching is to give pupils the tools to discriminate between different theories, ideologies and possible ‘big stories’; to be careful with partial evidence, like chatting with a single schoolteacher; to allow them to compare their country’s history with others’ (‘What does he know of England,’ Kipling wrote, though he was thinking of something else, ‘who only England knows?’); to appreciate that the complexities and ambivalences of history can’t be reduced to anyone’s ‘big story’, or ‘grand narrative’; and, I believe – though this statement shouldn’t be accepted uncritically either – to be aware of the crimes as well as the achievements of all human societies and polities, including empires, and the circumstances that give rise to both.