Militant Tendency

Bernard Porter · Niall Ferguson and the National Curriculum

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.


  • 29 June 2010 at 3:39pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    I can hardly wait. In his book on the First World war he decided that it was all Grey's fault for shillyshallying and not making it clear to the Boche that it meant war to invade Belgium. An 18 year old student of mine saw that off quite nicely in an extended essay. Perhaps Ferguson would bring in some counterfactual stuff - you know, 'if the wall hadn't come down in 1989' or 'what if Kennedy had not been shot..' All very relevant to the plight of capitalism in 2010, I'd say. Let's hope it was just a senior moment for a junior minister.

    • 29 June 2010 at 8:04pm
      pinhut says: @ Geoff Roberts
      What a terrible prospect. It would take a score of Scargills to balance out his views.

  • 30 June 2010 at 7:53pm
    simonpawley says:
    As a history student, I was beginning to get quite cross about the idea of letting Ferguson lay down the basis for school history textbooks that would celebrate the glories of the British Empire. But as a friend astutely pointed out, there is a good reason why schoolchildren spend so much time studying the sins of others (the Nazis and the Bolsheviks in particular) rather than our own patchy record, and that any attempt to celebrate the empire in the curriculum would backfire, because the facts largely speak for themselves.

    When I did my History A-Level about 10 years ago, we had to do half of the modules on British history. My school did British politics from 1918-45, and from 1945-97. Successions of Prime Ministers instead of Kings and Queens. Our textbooks were largely strings of tired cliches. I imagine it was enough to put most of the class off the subject for the rest of their lives - even I, who was interested in history anyway and read books on other topics in my leisure time, struggled to find anything interesting to engage with in it. On the plus side, we got to formulate and write a 3000-word coursework essay on any topic we wanted (so long as it was sensible), which gave us a chance to see how interesting it can be to pursue the subject independently. I don't think they do this any more, because of concerns about plagiarism.

    Gove surely cannot get his wish, because he isn't sure what it is. Does he want kids to learn about the history of British domestic politics, or about Britain's global entanglements? He wants kings and queens, but also Empire. Based on the story you've given us from the 80s, Gove will probably get exactly what he (presumably) doesn't really want, which is the injection of a bit more of the new "transnational" history so popular in academic circles right now, into the school curriculum.

  • 1 July 2010 at 2:04pm
    James Alexander says:
    Being the LRB blog, what’s getting said here should be said, is on the side of the angels alright, and commands cheerful assent from this ex-history schoolteacher with a PhD in the politics of the nineteenth century state school curriculum. But Gove-type syllabus thinking is usually based on the indoctrinationist fantasy that school history teaching will have an effective and important influence on how future generations as a whole will think and act, socially and politically. Life just doesn’t work like that, not in universal schooling systems in open societies. Even in fascist and Marxist systems the results seem to have been a lot less than the indoctrinationists hoped for. It’s the same fantasy as the idea that it just needs the right teachers and teaching methods and the whole population will be able comfortably to read the LRB, and want to.
    Most pontificators and legislators talk almost exclusively about what is taught, about “lessons” - the National Curriculum is redolent with that narrow and inadequate obsession. But if your business is in the consequences of schooling, what matters is what is learned, and that is a much more difficult matter. In all animal life, growth to maturity is continual learning. Teaching can be of marginal assistance to it; a curriculum or syllabus attempts to direct a tiny fraction of a human learner’s attention to a tiny part of all that a human can and will learn. This simple, inescapable truth angers indoctrinationists, and the human condition alas seems to make us all indoctrinationists to some degree when confronted with our off-spring, whether individually or collectively. A body of professional educational opinion tried for a while to press the idea that we should base our efforts and expenditure on what is and may be learned rather our instructional fantasies, from c1920 to 1980. They were pilloried and placarded “progressives”, and are at the present time outcast and untouchable.
    A much lesser problem in educational discussion peeps out from the blog and comments here. It is the decent, but utterly wrong, supposition that the school population is made up of people very like me, people who will value, respond to, and be affected by teaching (in this case history teaching) as I did and was. It isn’t, and at the very least 80% of it won’t. There are other characters, other priorities. In 1959 (when schools were better, you recall) I asked a busload of good-natured, worthwhile 14 year olds circumnavigating Trafalgar Square who that was up there, on the Column. They were decent representative humans, Londoners, somewhere in the centre of the cognitive ability range (the streaming system testified to that). I knew they had been ‘taught’ the answer, in a syllabus that was strong on our island story, its heroes and victories. One lad had it nearly right - “Napoleon?” he offered. I trust and believe he has since lived a decent worthwhile life, made his contribution and a family, and is just now starting a decent worthwhile retirement. I think he may well know by this time who is really up there on the Column, and if he does, it won’t be thanks to me, his time in compulsory schooling, or my in situ correction. He has other priorities in life. (Neither do I discount the possibility that he was winding me up, but the years tell me he wasn’t.)