Iain Pears makes a characteristically spirited attack on government policy on higher education (LRB, 17 March). However, some parts of his attack miss the target.
1. Higher Education Council. Pears says: ‘The government is contemplating creating a super-quango with powers to direct the internal affairs of universities, which are precisely the sort of extra-state, autonomous institution that it is supposed to be freeing from the shackles of regulation.’
This is to confuse a proposal with policy. The British Academy is among the many bodies that have opposed the creation of a single monolithic Higher Education Council as proposed by Lord Browne. It appears likely that this proposal, like some others in the Browne Review, will be significantly altered by the time the government’s White Paper on higher education appears.
2.British Academy grant schemes. Pears writes: ‘The British Academy has … come under pressure to allocate funds according to government priorities, rather than to what it thinks are the most promising research proposals. It has also been told that it must no longer give out the small grants used to finish off individual projects, although they have proved the cheapest and most cost-effective way of funding research in the humanities.’
We argued strongly for the retention of the scheme, and we are continuing to make the case for it. While we regard the end of funding for it as unfortunate, it is hardly in itself improper for government to decide what types of scheme it is prepared to fund. We remain in dialogue with ministers, officials and others over this issue. Dialogue and engagement are not to be confused with supine obeisance.
Meanwhile, our new mid-career fellowships scheme, which replaces the small grants scheme, will support outstanding researchers and also outstanding communicators. Fellows of the academy, not the government, will decide who receives these or any other awards. Certain priorities specified for some of these awards – languages, for example – are ones for which the British Academy has campaigned for years, and are not impositions on us from government.
3. Impact. Pears makes some telling criticisms of the ‘impact’ agenda which is being implemented as part of the forthcoming research assessment. However, he goes too far when he writes: ‘Impact will be bad for the sciences, but for the humanities it will be cruel. The intellectual bankruptcy of what is coming can be gauged by a pamphlet produced by the British Academy last June.’
What he fails to note is that the British Academy itself played a leading part in reframing the notion of ‘impact’, and limiting its role, arguing that the notion of ‘public value’ was a better way of identifying the benefits of particular subjects and disciplines. This was reflected in the title of the publication about which he complains: Past, Present and Future: The Public Value of the Humanities and Social Sciences. In addition, the academy formally criticised the proposal in the new Research Excellence Framework that 25 per cent of the weighting should be allocated according to ‘impact’ criteria, calling for a maximum of 15 per cent instead. However, we do believe that visible research outputs and a commitment to public engagement are vitally important in order to maintain support for public investment in science and research, and make no apologies for saying so.
4. Research funding. Pears fails to mention two important facts. In response to a strong campaign waged by academies and universities, the government has maintained research funding for social sciences and humanities at steady-state level for the next four years. In addition the quality-related research funding, on which humanities and social science research disproportionately relies, has not only been maintained, but also ring-fenced. In an era of large cuts in public spending these results are remarkable. The British Academy is proud to have had a significant and, yes, independent role in contributing, along with many others, to these welcome outcomes.
There remains much to worry about in what Pears calls the ‘hastily cobbled together’ changes in government policy towards higher education. I would highlight some issues not mentioned by Pears in his article. First, the threat to foreign language provision. Courses tend to require four years’ study, and are therefore in a tough position when student loans are so high. Already in recent years there have been closures of language departments. More may be at risk. Second, the implications of the new student funding system for UK students wanting to go on to postgraduate studies. They will be in serious debt and there are no new funding support arrangements for them. Third, restrictions on student and staff visas. These are likely to have an adverse effect on the hitherto impressive record of UK universities in attracting overseas students and staff. These are among the many issues on which the British Academy has pressed, and will continue to press, the government.
President, British Academy, London SW1
Julian Bell writes drolly to protest John Lanchester’s characterisation of the current political high command as white men in their forties with humanities degrees from Oxford, on the grounds that Nick Clegg is a white man in his forties with a humanities degree from Cambridge (Letters, 17 March). The wider question is whether these are men with ‘humanities’ degrees in any received sense of that term. Lanchester instances Cameron, Clegg, Osborne (albeit under 40), Miliband (Ed) and Balls. But Cameron read Philosophy, Politics and Economics, as did Miliband (who then studied economics at the LSE), and Balls (who then studied economics at Harvard); Clegg studied social anthropology. The academic disciplines of politics, economics and social anthropology are generally classified intellectually – and badged and organised administratively – not as humanities, but as social sciences. At Oxford, philosophy is a faculty in the Humanities Division, but politics and economics are departments within the Social Sciences Division. So even if these various PPE grads didn’t drop philosophy after the first year, as many do, their degrees were preponderantly social science degrees. It is tempting to add loftily that the humanities have enough difficulties at present without being blamed for the intellectual philistinism of a cadre of social science trained politicians. But the examples of Osborne (History, Oxford) and Michael Gove (English, Oxford) – as Richard J. Evans demonstrated in the issue of 17 March – inhibit the humanities from claiming the high moral pedagogic ground.
Balliol College, Oxford
At the beginning of Ernest Gilman’s Plague Writing in Early Modern England James Shapiro repeats a blunder perpetrated by Jonathan Bate on the first page of his Soul of the Age (LRB, 31 March). A marginalium written by the parish clerk of Holy Trinity, Stratford, in July 1564 – ‘Hic incepit pestis’ – is translated by Shapiro, as by Bate, as ‘Here begins the plague,’ rather than ‘Here began the plague.’ It makes a difference. As implied by our term ‘epidemic’, early modern ‘plague’ was defined not by one death, but by a critical mass of deaths in the course of a week or a month which were apparently caused by ‘infection’. In July 1564 no doubt the body of the apprentice Oliver Gunne exhibited ‘tokens’ of plague. But only after a substantial number of further deaths could the clerk, a careful chronicler of his community, conclude that Gunne’s death had marked the beginning of that summer’s plague. The reading of incepit as if it meant the same as incipit puts the honest clerk in the absurd position of a prophet with foreknowledge of the two hundred or so further deaths that were to occur in the parish that summer. It also highlights a worrying decline in the knowledge of basic Latin among early modernists.
I’m not happy, either, at being bracketed with Bate as someone who has ‘struggled to determine the impact plague had on Shakespeare’s life and work’. I would have preferred a word such as ‘engaged’, rather than ‘struggled’. Coming at Shakespeare via his non-dramatic writings – two long narrative poems and the Sonnets – I have been unusually well situated to consider the fact that all three works were published, through the poet’s own agency, during plague outbreaks which had caused London’s playhouses to be closed. To that extent the impact of plague on Shakespeare’s career is manifest. Had the theatres never reopened, he would have written, and published, many more non-dramatic poems. Plague also had more impact on Shakespeare’s dramatic writings than Shapiro acknowledges. In Romeo and Juliet, possibly one of the first of Shakespeare’s new plays to be performed in the blessedly plague-free summer of 1595, plague, and civic measures to control its spread, prevent Romeo from receiving Friar Laurence’s letter about plans to fake Juliet’s death. In this sense it is bodily plague, not just the metaphorical ‘plague’ of passionate love, that triggers the play’s woeful conclusion.
University of Oxford
It is a pity that Stephen Smith, in his excellent article on Rwanda, does not include a few words about Paul Kagame’s background, which explains a great deal about the roots of the past massacres and the present position (LRB, 17 March). Kagame, after fighting for Museveni’s National Resistance Movement to oust Milton Obote from Uganda, became head of military intelligence for the NRA in 1986. In 1990, he went to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for military training. Well before the massacre of the Tutsis in 1994, the US and UK gave active military support to the Tutsi Rwanda Patriotic Front, which Kagame had created and which took power soon afterwards. The US was looking to create a dependable base in Central Africa from which to influence developments in an important area that included the Democratic Republic of the Congo; later US Special Forces assisted in the overthrow of the Mobutu government. Part of the plan was the transformation of Rwanda from a French-speaking country into an English-speaking one, which culminated, as Smith says, in 2009 when it was admitted to the Commonwealth, leaving the Francophone Hutus stranded and powerless.
Colm Tóibín, in his piece about aunts, focuses explicitly on the 19th-century novel, but it is worth considering that not only are Shakespeare’s young female characters typically motherless (and usually also auntless), but so are many non-Shakespearean dramatic heroines, like Beatrice-Joanna in Middleton and Rowley’s Changeling, or Congreve’s Millamant, or Lydia Languish in Sheridan’s Rivals (LRB, 17 March). In fact, Millamant and Lydia do have aunts, and singularly embarrassing they are. It is as if girls in comedies cannot have mothers because they would hinder their character development, while aunts function as distorting mirrors of what they might become if they aren’t careful. (There, but for the grace of Lizzy, goes Darcy, too.) Girls in tragedies are typically without the protection of a strong middle-aged female and their downfall is caused by men, often their own fathers. I’m sure Polonius was married to a formidable woman who would have handled her daughter’s affair with Hamlet with aplomb.
Appalled as I am at my own presumption, may I take issue with Colm Tóibín. There is a third aunt in Pride and Prejudice. Mrs Philips, Mrs Bennet’s sister, married to the local solicitor, is a confidante for Mrs Bennet, a sympathiser and bearer of village gossip – not as significant a role as either Mrs Gardiner, or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but important in the micro-climate.
Armadale, Victoria, Australia
‘It is the Tea Party that has effectively brought the unions back to life,’ Steve Fraser writes (LRB, 17 March). It’s a bit more complicated than that. The revolt in Madison was spontaneous, sparked by graduate students, teachers and local unions – a grassroots movement. The ‘unions’, if we mean the national union leaderships, entered late, offered lukewarm endorsement and no leadership.
Fraser also misunderstands the working-class movements of the 1970s. He ignores the vast gulf that separated the rank and file (the unorganised) and the ‘unions’. The 1970s revolt was above all a rank and file rebellion, a historic strike wave, characterised by wildcat insurrections, roving pickets and internal union revolts. Rebellious American workers typically confronted entrenched, business-oriented unions. ‘I never went on strike in my life,’ George Meany, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations from 1955 to 1979, declared, ‘never ran a strike in my life, never ordered anyone else to run a strike in my life, never had anything to do with a picket line.’
These unions, far from being victims of Anti-Communism in the 1950s, or the ‘new politics’ of the 1970s, as Fraser suggests, were top-down and statist; they relished incorporation and stoked the fires of the Nixon era ‘backlash’. Fraser says that the opportunities of the 1970s were ‘squandered’ but fails to explain by whom and why. In the public sector, where opposition to the Vietnam War and a commitment to civil rights was strongest, in particular among teachers, there was sustained union growth – the result also of a grassroots movement but in this case assisted (or at least not blocked) by national unions.
Mendocino County, California
Daniel Finn writes that Fine Gael ‘swung across the spectrum from fascism to social democracy’ (LRB, 17 March). This allegation, once popular among opponents of Fine Gael, is now widely rejected. Eoin O’Duffy was appointed first president of the newly formed party in September 1933. Just 12 months later he resigned, forced out by criticism within the party of his incompetent leadership and his willingness to use force for political ends. His power base within the party – the Old Comrades Association, renamed the National Guard and popularly known as the Blueshirts – split. O’Duffy took over the leadership of an extremist wing. It was only then that he first made contact with fascist parties in mainland Europe. Modern historians such as J.J. Lee don’t accept that the Blueshirts or O’Duffy were fascist in any meaningful sense – in any case, both leader and led quickly vanished from the political scene.
By far the largest and most influential of the three groups which came together to form Fine Gael was Cumann na nGaedheal, which had been founded in 1923 in the aftermath of the Civil War, with the purpose of building the newly established Irish Free State. Over the next decade, despite outrages by the IRA and the refusal of Sinn Fein to take up seats in the parliament, the Cumann na nGaedheal government largely succeeded in laying the foundations of a democratic, law-abiding, competently administered civil society. When finally it lost a general election, in 1932, to de Valera’s Fianna Fáil, it handed over power peacefully. This transition is widely regarded as the moment when Southern Ireland finally and fully committed itself to developing as a stable, Western-style democracy.
Richard J. Evans clearly isn’t going to let inexperience of school teaching stand in his way (LRB, 17 March). His analysis of what children need to learn is tellingly illustrated by what interested him as an undergraduate at Oxford: here is yet another academic promoting for schools what appears to be a wishlist for university special subjects. Not only does this approach fail to take into account the enormous difference in maturity between a 14-year-old, of whatever ability, and a gifted undergraduate, it also ignores the point that university history, certainly when Evans was a lad, was able to take a breadth of historical coverage for granted. That is no longer the case. Evans can read out the topics listed in the National Curriculum as much as he likes; the reality is that the actual coverage of history in the classroom is much narrower and often more random than he thinks.
Evans claims that West Indian children should learn Caribbean history rather than British, Asian children the history of the Indian subcontinent rather than Tudors and Stuarts, and so on. The evidence is all the other way: I would recommend he walk up the road to Cambridge Muslim College, where they teach standard British political history, Whigs, Tories and all, at the express request of the students.
Evans assumes that because the Better History Group, a research unit at Anglia Ruskin University which I chair, has offered its advice to the current government and wants children to learn about the construction of historical narrative, we must all be Tories. As Simon Schama has pointed out, there is nothing intrinsically right-wing about wanting children to learn the history of the country they live in and whose future they will shape. We do not advocate a patriotic flag-waving interpretation; indeed the questions Evans quotes from our submission (they are organisational questions for teaching, not exam questions, as Evans wrongly assumes) are specifically designed to get children thinking more deeply about the relationship between history and nation. To ask how Nelson and Wellington became national heroes is not to ask why they were so wonderful but why a hero cult was built around them and what it tells us about Britain in that period.
Evans even denies that it is the accumulation of historical knowledge that makes a good historian. The difference between us would appear to be that the Better History Group wants to help children expand their historical horizons; Evans is quite happy to see them contract.
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge
Richard J. Evans’s attack on Michael Gove and Simon Schama is fundamentally misplaced. He objects to the teaching of national myths, and thinks that instead historians’ primary task in regard to school students is to teach ‘scepticism about the narratives presented by historians’. Professional historians should indeed begin with a recognition that their discipline is not like mathematics, or foreign languages. It does not simply build up on the basis of indisputable facts, but is constantly angling for new insights. Somebody studying French never needs to unlearn what they encountered in their first lessons; but academic historians (and economists and other social scientists) will spend most of their time refuting other work and urging their students to unlearn previous assumptions. This activity, however, cannot be conveyed at a lower level, where it will produce at best an undesirable and indeed dangerous relativism, an assumption that all historians inevitably and habitually lie and hence that the results presented are never worth taking seriously at all.
In making the case for scepticism, Evans ignores the case for school history as stimulating the imagination. The good that can be done is achieved by seeing other worlds – that exist in the past, and in different societies – not in order to provide some sort of justification for a modern pluralistic society, but rather in order to be able to see ourselves in a fuller perspective and to be able to see alternatives and options. History should fire the imagination; and in that sense at school level it may be much better to have Shakespeare’s Richard III than a pedantic debunking of Shakespeare as a propagator of Tudor myths.
Richard J. Evans misses one of the rich ironies of Michael Gove’s crusade to promote Britishness in history. Gove (a Scot) is responsible for school history only in England: his writ does not run in Scotland, Wales or any part of Ireland. So his prescribed vision of Britishness will inevitably be partial and anglocentric. Whatever Britishness may mean, it certainly involves reciprocity between several different (national) traditions.
Richard J. Evans is right to counter Michael Gove’s assertion that the current syllabus ‘trashes’ our past, but he is wrong to oppose the inclusion of some long-span courses. The current history curriculum is far too episodic. Teenagers especially need connected narratives to catch their interest, to frame the episodes, and to debate.
Why don’t we have a big course on ‘The Peopling of Britain’ – from the Celts (and the Basques, as biologists now tell us) to the Poles in the 21st century? Such a narrative would show where we’ve all come from and how we’ve managed together; it would include conquests and conflicts as well as intermarriage and cultural sharing. We can study our collective roots without either trashing our past or celebrating the ‘Wonderfulness of Us’.
Richard J. Evans states that ‘it makes far more sense’ for children from Afro-Caribbean and South Asian backgrounds to study the history of the Mughal Empire or Benin rather than ‘Alfred and the cakes or Drake and the Armada’. By this logic, it makes far more sense for children from a ‘British’ background to study the latter two topics. Since children with this background constitute the overwhelming majority in English schools, doesn’t Evans’s argument here favour the Better History movement he opposes?
Demos, London SE1
As a product of an older teaching environment, which presented the great stories of British history as riveting real-life dramas and which created for me a lifelong interest in the subject, I have been dismayed to watch my own son, from the age of 11 onwards, having to grind through the skills element of the present history curriculum, with its focus on source-work and presentations, as if we were training a legion of footnote editors and PowerPoint mavens for the future. A key measure of success for a curriculum has to be whether it inspires those being taught to continue in the discipline. The current statistics show large numbers of students dropping the subject for GCSE and, as Schama and others warn, they will be ‘lost to history’.
Queen Mary, University of London
What’s wrong with narrative? Only the word itself as used by Richard J. Evans. Why not ‘story’? Children like stories, as does everyone else. Told properly, they make you read on; and having pupils wanting to read on is the forlorn dream of every teacher of anything. To listen to Evans and his supporters, teaching in this attractive and coherent way means rah-rah history with free flags, a chronicle of Top Nationhood. The story actually told should be that mix of the creditable, the discreditable and the so-so, created by the lurching course of events.
Thormanby, North Yorks
Richard J. Evans asserts that ‘“rich and rowdy discord" still ends up with winners and losers, and if we have a single national identity, then it will be that of the winners.’ My play, The Peterloo Massacre (with a cast of hundreds, mainly playing members of the crowd in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, at the meeting to hear Orator Hunt), was performed in schools throughout the country in the 1970s and 1980s. In my own school I recall the victims’ nightly unscripted utterances of fear and anguish as they fled the cutlasses and cudgels, and the brutal curses of the yeomanry hacking their way through the defenceless assembly. In the follow-up session in the classroom those same pupils struggled with the question of who ‘won’ and who ‘lost’ in that awful event. Some came to the judgment that even an extended franchise could not compensate for the suffering occasioned by the magistrates’ order to break up the meeting. Here the pupils encountered their own history in all its ‘rowdy discord’, and faced the issues it raised: the uses of power, the costs of seeking liberty, the unending impact of historical events on human communities. A strong focus on the teaching of British history is not the same thing as a surrender to jingoism.
Richard J. Evans writes: In the weird, ideologically deformed parallel universe inhabited by Messrs Gove, Schama and Ferguson, and among your respondents in this issue and the previous one, Lang, McGovern, Arends and Tombs, history in our schools is in a state of terminal decline, facts have more or less disappeared from the curriculum, the teaching of history has abandoned the long view in favour of unrelated short-term topics divorced from any wider chronological context, and students emerge from their schooldays knowing virtually nothing about the past. As Jackie Williams pointed out, these assertions don’t bear the remotest relationship to the actual teaching of history in schools, and this holds good not just for Shropshire but for the rest of England as well. For people so insistent on the importance of facts, the critics of the existing curriculum have a cavalier way of dealing with them.
Last month’s Ofsted report on the teaching of history in some 166 primary and secondary schools notes that, in 2007-10, ‘there were more examination entries for history than for any other optional subject at GCSE level, apart from design and technology.’ There has been no significant decline in the proportion of students taking GCSE history – around a third – since GCSEs were introduced in the 1980s. ‘The number of students in England choosing to study history has remained stable for the past ten years.’ And ‘numbers taking the subject at A level have risen steadily over the past ten years,’ making history one of the ‘top five subject choices at A level’.
Where’s the crisis, then? The answer is that it’s an imaginary crisis being manufactured by those who want to turn history in our schools into a vehicle of crude nationalist indoctrination. Hence the attempt by Niall Ferguson in a recent issue of the Guardian to rubbish the Ofsted report as the product of an ‘educational establishment … in deep denial about the damage its beloved new history has done’. He seems to expect his readers to share his scepticism about the value of the imaginative teaching methods praised in the report but doesn’t provide any reason why they should. The term ‘new history’ doesn’t occur in the Ofsted report.
The report found that history was generally taught well. Pupils ‘enjoyed their lessons’ and ‘regarded history as fun’. As one Year 8 pupil told an inspector, ‘It makes us think.’ Another said: ‘History liberates the mind.’ A third said it enabled her to ‘read between the lines’. An older student said history helped develop skills ‘in researching, in improving our communication skills, in interrogating evidence, in devising our own questions, in extracting information, and in helping us to understand the world in which we live’. It is precisely this spirit of critical inquiry that Gove and his allies want to crush.
The problems identified by the Ofsted report are the same as those to which I pointed in my article. In a minority of schools the curriculum is being squeezed, and bits get left out as a result, with the consequence that ‘some pupils found it difficult to place the historical episodes they had studied within any coherent, long-term narrative.’ As I noted, it’s essential for pupils to know ‘at least in outline the longer-term context of what they study’, and this is indeed a key feature of the existing national curriculum’s treatment of British history for 11-14-year-olds. Without this context they will flounder.
But that’s quite another matter from making this the core or even the sole element in the curriculum. Penelope Corfield hasn’t read my piece properly if she thinks I ‘oppose the inclusion of some long-span courses’. As I pointed out, the existing national curriculum from age 11 to age 14 is built around the study of British history from the 11th century to the 20th.
As Edmund Gordon points out, reading a narrative in a book or watching it unfold in a television series is not the same as trying to teach it in schools, though Edward Pearce seems to think it is. As Bernard Porter remarked in a recent review, Ferguson’s own new book, Civilisation, is ‘an almost perfect illustration of why children need to be taught analytical skills, more than “big stories" or facts’. The problem is that there are many competing ‘big stories’ presenting many different facts, and Ferguson’s account of ‘the rise of the West’ is ‘only one way of looking at modern world history’, just as Gove’s ‘our island story’ is another, a Daily Telegraph reader’s narrative of the decline of Britain a third, John Hipkin’s account of rebellion and repression a fourth, and so on. Schoolchildren, as Porter says, ‘need analytical skills to sort out the strands’. To feed only one narrative to children as their only ‘big story’ for ‘identity’ purposes, as Porter says, is to confuse history with propaganda.
Harold James – yet another British historian teaching in the US – tells us that teaching a critical approach to historical narratives will create boredom and confusion in schoolchildren. The Ofsted report’s conclusions are a sufficient refutation of this patronising view. James’s plea for history to fire the imagination can only be applauded; but history teaching at its best already does that, as the school inspectors note, and not by purveying myths or studying fictional representations of the past either. A recent survey of first-year history undergraduates’ views on how they were taught history at school concludes that ‘British history received poor notices for its traditionalism and parochialism,’ while the teaching of Nazi Germany ‘in a multifaceted manner with reference to historiographical debate’ got high praise.
My colleague Robert Tombs asks: ‘Is it unreasonable for schoolchildren to gain a basic knowledge of the history of the country in which they live?’ The answer is of course that the existing national curriculum already provides this. As the Ofsted report notes, ‘the view that too little British history is taught in secondary schools in England is a myth. Pupils in the schools visited studied a considerable amount of British history and knew a great deal about the particular topics covered.’ My objection isn’t to British history being taught at all, but to the idea that it should be all that’s taught. And in practice, as Dennis Smith notes, Gove and Schama are prescribing an anglocentric account of Britishness. Not that this would be so very revolutionary: the Ofsted report complains that too few schools teach British as opposed to English history.
Time and again, the critics list facts drawn from the national patriotic narrative and complain that hardly any school-leavers or indeed first-year undergraduates seem to know them. Thus the solution is to refocus the national curriculum to drum this narrative into them by rote-learning. Seán Lang says that to ask how the Duke of Wellington became a national hero is not to ask why he was so wonderful but to ask why a hero cult was built around him. If Niall Ferguson’s recent complaint in the Guardian that students don’t know who commanded the British forces at the Battle of Waterloo is anything to go by, this will not be easy. Only a minority of Wellington’s army were British, and the battle was won not by Wellington and his troops but by the Germans in the shape of Blücher and his Prussian army, whose arrival late in the day turned the tide.
Teaching children from very diverse backgrounds about Alfred and the cakes is not going to help them to a mature sense of national identity in a multicultural society. One of the Ofsted report’s most serious criticisms had to do with ‘pupils’ limited knowledge and understanding of how the United Kingdom had developed as an ethnically and culturally diverse society’. Corfield’s proposal has some merit here. It was dismaying to hear the teaching of narrowly conventional British political history at the Cambridge Muslim College being praised on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day a few months back, despite Lang’s evident enthusiasm for it. Muslims deserve to be taught a modern and outward-looking curriculum as much as any other students do.
Is the critics’ agenda a Tory agenda? Lang denies his group is linked to the Conservative Party. But all you need to do is to look up its website, where you will find it was formed specifically in order to advise the then Conservative Party Shadow Education Team. Still, this doesn’t make the entire campaign Tory. Robert Tombs complains that the subtitle of my article – ‘The Tory Interpretation of History’ – is misplaced; and he is right. I didn’t put it there.
One of the most dismaying aspects of the Gadarene rush to turn the teaching of history in our schools into a mindless means of building national identity is that it goes right across the political spectrum. One of the most enthusiastic participants was the last Labour prime minister; and as I noted in my article, there has been no sign so far that anyone in the Labour Party dissents from Gove’s views on the subject.
Tombs caricatures my argument when he accuses me of saying that factual knowledge is unimportant for historians. As I noted, it’s rightly a key part of the existing national curriculum and of history at GCSE and A level. I’m sure he would agree, however, that facts are meaningless unless put into a context of interpretation and linked to it through the exercise of critical examination. I doubt very much if in his own teaching he simply dictates lists of names, events and dates to his students and marks them on how many they get right.
Michael Kulikowski, in his review of Rex Winsbury’s biography of the redoubtable Zenobia, most likely erred in identifying Cassius Longinus, Zenobia’s counsellor, as the writer of Peri hupsos (On the Sublime) (LRB, 31 March). For a century or so, the scholarly consensus has inclined towards placing the author of this treatise at an earlier date, although the fact that he was thought to be the same as the Palmyrene queen’s adviser did play an important role in the 17th and 18th-century reception of ‘Longinus’.
Morris Singer charges the Israeli novelist David Grossman with ‘indifference to the inner lives of the Palestinians’, which, he writes, reflects ‘the pinched sympathies’ of the Zionist consensus (Letters, 17 February). Perhaps Singer will calculate for us what percentage of war novels written anywhere in wartime engage with the ‘inner lives’ of the enemy? And how many peoples in deadly conflict have ‘un-pinched’ sympathies for their enemies?
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Peter McGill is a little wide of the mark when he writes that Japan’s Self-Defence Forces had ‘been consigned to the shadows as constitutional pariahs’ until the recent earthquake-tsunami double punch (LRB, 31 March). There has been an incremental acceptance in Japan of the SDF’s role since the August 1992 enactment of the International Peace Co-operation Law and the SDF’s subsequent participation in UN peacekeeping missions. Although the post-9/11 dispatch of naval assets to the Indian Ocean in support of US military action in Afghanistan was not without its domestic critics, the deployment of SDF troops to Iraq in February 2004 was a watershed moment: subsequent deployments got lots of play in the media. Similarly, the decision in March 2009 to send Maritime Self-Defence Forces vessels to participate in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia met with broad public support. Increased suspicions as to China’s future naval intentions, heightened by an incident near disputed islands in September 2010, has added to the sense among the wider public that the SDF are necessary to help stave off neighbourhood threats.