The Wonderfulness of Us

(the Tory Interpretation of History)

Richard J. Evans

‘One of the under-appreciated tragedies of our time has been the sundering of our society from its past,’ Michael Gove announced at the Tory Party Conference last October:

Children are growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom. Our history has moments of pride, and shame, but unless we fully understand the struggles of the past we will not properly value the liberties of the present. The current approach we have to history denies children the opportunity to hear our island story. Children are given a mix of topics at primary, a cursory run through Henry VIII and Hitler at secondary and many give up the subject at 14, without knowing how the vivid episodes of our past become a connected narrative. Well, this trashing of our past has to stop.

Simon Schama is the person entrusted with the job of putting things right; Schama, the education secretary announced, ‘has agreed to advise us on how we can put British history at the heart of a revived national curriculum’. (Never mind that he teaches in New York.) Echoing Gove’s enthusiasm for British history in the Guardian a few weeks later, Schama described the story of Henry II and Thomas Becket as ‘riveting’ and ‘thrilling’, and wondered why the execution of Charles I and the rule of Oliver Cromwell, ‘this most thrilling, terrifying epic moment in British history seldom gets classroom time.’

The first task of the curriculum, as Gove and Schama see it, is to foster a sense of British national identity. ‘At a moment fraught with the possibility of social and cultural division,’ Schama writes, we need citizens ‘who grow up with a sense of our shared memory as a living, urgently present body of knowledge’. Or, as the popular historian Dominic Sandbrook puts it, we need to return to ‘the stories that make up a nation’s collective memory, that fire the imagination, that bind the generations’ – ‘Alfred and the cakes’ or ‘Drake and the Armada’. New Labour’s legacy, Gove asserts, has been a history curriculum that favours ‘themes’ over ‘actual content’; what we need is a return to narrative history. ‘Our children,’ Schama says, ‘are being short-changed of the patrimony of their story, which is to say the lineaments of the whole story, for there can be no true history that refuses to span the arc, no coherence without chronology.’

The current curriculum, its critics say, focuses too much on transmitting skills and not enough on teaching facts. The running here has been made by a self-appointed pressure group calling itself Better History, formed in 2006 to advise the Conservative shadow education team. The group, which is led by Seán Lang, a former schoolteacher, seems to have supplied Gove with many of his ideas – chief among them the notion that what most schoolchildren want from history is ‘to find out what happened’. According to the Sunday Times, Gove has said that ‘he wants school history teaching to place far more emphasis on factual knowledge, including the lives of kings and queens.’

None of these arguments has so far met with any serious opposition. Not one professional historian employed by a British university has spoken out either in favour of these ideas or against them. The Labour Party has remained silent.

The existing national history curriculum, taking children up to the age of 14, aims to give them a grasp of chronology, a ‘knowledge and understanding of events, people and changes in the past’, basic principles of historical interpretation and inquiry, and elementary skills of communication, ‘developed through teaching the content relating to local, national, European and world history’. Study of a variety of topics is intended to assist children’s ‘spiritual development, through helping pupils to appreciate the achievements of past societies, and to understand the motivation of individuals who made sacrifices for a particular cause’. Children have to learn about the social, cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of the societies they study, which include the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, two later periods of British history, Ancient Greece and its influence, and one non-European society selected from among Ancient Egypt, Sumer, the Assyrian Empire, the Indus Valley, the Maya, Benin or the Aztecs.

There seems to be plenty of factual content in all this, and plenty of kings and queens too. The examples the curriculum provides for teaching history to children from seven to 11 make mention of (by my count) 36 significant individuals, ranging from Boudicca and Caractacus to Livingstone and Brunel. From 11 to 14, children study the whole sweep of British history from 1066 to 1900 in three courses. These include ‘the development of the monarchy, and significant events and characteristic features of the lives of people living throughout the British Isles’ as well as, for the later period, the history of Parliament and its relation to the people. More than two dozen individuals are mentioned, including Henry II and Becket, Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, Charles II and William III, Nelson and Wellington, Gladstone and Disraeli. In addition to the three British courses, students have to take one period of European history before 1914, and two world history courses, one involving an ancient society such as China or Japan, the other focusing on the world since 1900 (names here include Hitler and Churchill, and possible topics range from the Russian Revolution to European decolonisation).

So far, so factual, and indeed, the body responsible for overseeing the curriculum requires 70 per cent of assessment to be on content and only 30 per cent on skills. The best students will learn crucial skills of analysis, argument and presentation, but most will fall short of this: the curriculum lists eight levels of attainment altogether. By the time they finish history as a compulsory subject, 14-year-olds will have studied the entire course of British history and learned about a whole variety of key personalities and institutions in it, as well as learning to appreciate the achievements of a number of European and non-European civilisations.

Why Gove and his allies should think that facts and names play no part in all this is a mystery. His bizarrely counterfactual complaint that the only names mentioned in the current curriculum are the abolitionists William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano was too much even for the people leading the charge against it: Better History’s Seán Lang pointed out that ‘no one would say that because only two names are in the official documentation these are the only two that people teach about.’ Nor is it clear why Gove thinks that the curriculum as it currently exists is a vehicle for the ‘trashing of our past’ when it covers so much of it in such detail. The real problem is not with the curriculum’s content, but with the schools’ failure to deliver it, as history is taught all too frequently as part of ‘humanities’ or ‘general studies’ by teachers with no training in the subject, and key parts of it get neglected in the drive to boost literacy and numeracy rates by schools keen to climb up the league tables.

Perhaps – though he doesn’t say so – Gove’s remarks are meant to apply to the next stage of schooling, ending with the GCSE exam at the age of 15 or 16. Here history is no longer compulsory, but for the third or so of children who decide to take it, there is a change of direction. Out goes British history, out goes the long sweep of the centuries, out go social, economic and cultural history. Students take Modern World History, which is emphatically focused on politics and international relations (Germany 1918-39, Russia/USSR 1905-41, USA 1919-41, Vietnam 1954-75, Northern Ireland 1965-85), or topics from the Schools History Project, such as Medicine through Time or the American West. In this phase there is a continuing focus on ‘education for citizenship’, as the exam boards put it.

In the final stage of school education, ending with A level, the curriculum is effectively a more sophisticated version of the GCSE syllabus. A-level history has gone through a number of changes in recent years. From 2000, candidates had to take six courses, one of them drawn from British history – a syllabus the Conservatives complained about. But wide dissatisfaction with its superficiality led to a further reform in 2008, which reduced the number of courses required to four, at least one of which has to be in British history, the others in British, European or world history, meaning that at least a quarter of teaching time is spent on Britain. Nevertheless, critics, far from being silenced by these reforms, have become even more vocal in demanding a still greater focus on this country.

The national curriculum for the primary years has made brilliant use of people’s growing interest in the history of everyday life, from Viking longships to the Home Front during the Second World War. What’s taught at more advanced levels is narrower and more problematical. Yet here it reflects not just the choices made by teachers and schools, but also the preferences of students themselves, who from the age of 14 have a good deal of freedom to choose what to study. At A level, around 40 per cent choose Hitler and the Nazis; the next most popular topic is Stalin. As far as British history is concerned, a large proportion opt for the Tudors and Stuarts. In world history, the Cold War is popular, but topics in modern American history also attract a good many. And modern China’s appeal is growing fast. Is this wrong?

Certainly, it’s wrong for students to be able to repeat the same topics at GCSE and A level. And the time-frame should be longer: not just modern world history but remoter periods too. Yet this doesn’t mean that Nazi Germany should be ditched altogether. It appeals to teenagers for the same reasons that it appeals to adults: the collapse of German democracy in the early 1930s, the misery of the Depression, the rise of Hitler, the racism, sexism and criminality of the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, the drive to war – all of this raises critical questions of politics, morality and human behaviour in a dramatic form that has no parallel in British history. Stalin, Mao and other dictators pose similar challenges to the adolescent mind. The nearest thing British history has to offer in comparison is Henry VIII (‘England’s Stalin’, as the Tudor historian W.G. Hoskins once called him), but otherwise to teenagers it all seems relatively dull.

The choice of Schama to serve as the government’s chief adviser largely derives from his successful multi-part television history of Britain, broadcast 11 years ago. It presented history as narrative, in a way brilliantly suited to the medium. But what makes good TV doesn’t necessarily make for good teaching. A return to narrative in the classroom – to passive consumption instead of active critical engagement – is more likely to be a recipe for boredom and disaffection. Aware of the possibility that some might object to his overwhelming focus on British history, Schama has declared that ‘history’s long look at our national make-up’ is ‘not an insular proposal’ because it involves studying ‘the way Britain has conducted itself in the world beyond the shores of Albion’ and asking how Americanised or European British national identity is. But that still doesn’t shift Britain from the centre of the picture.

Gove, Schama and other advocates of the new Britain-centred narrative are all essentially proponents of the Whig interpretation of history, a theory exploded by professional historians more than half a century ago under the influence of Herbert Butterfield. Gove’s vision of ‘our island story’ is about examining the ‘struggles of the past’ to see how they brought about ‘the liberties of the present’. Similarly, Schama wants younger generations to ‘pass on the memory of our disputatious liberty’ to their descendants.

The demand, really, is for a celebratory history: how otherwise could it serve as the cement of national identity? Sample exam questions proposed by the Better History group for the new curriculum have included: ‘Why did Nelson and Wellington become national heroes?’; ‘What liberties did English people enjoy by the end of the 17th century that they hadn’t had at the start?’; and ‘How dangerous was the Spanish Armada?’ – the examinee, it’s presumed, isn’t going to answer from the point of view of the Spanish. Schama has rejected the claim that such a curriculum would be a vehicle of ‘national self-congratulation’; British history, he says, should be taught not as ‘the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us’ but in all its ‘rich and rowdy discord’ in order to achieve ‘an understanding of the identity of us’. But ‘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.

What lies at the root of all this is a profound division of opinion over what constitutes, or should constitute, national identity. The present curriculum for children from five to 14 offers an image of Britishness that pays at least some attention to the multiethnic composition of British society. Its critics want to replace this with a narrowly nationalistic identity built on myths about the ‘British’ past, as if there was such a thing before the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 – or, indeed, as many Scots (or for that matter Welsh) would argue, after it. It makes far more sense to teach British children of South Asian or Afro-Caribbean background about the parts of the world where their families originated – the history of the Mughal Empire, or of Benin or Oyo, for example – than to teach them about Alfred and the cakes or Drake and the Armada.

Similarly, the present curriculum takes due account of the undeniable fact (undeniable to everyone apart from the Europhobes in the Tory Party) that Britain is part of Europe and, beyond that, is connected to the rest of the world in an age of globalisation. Undergraduates I’ve spoken to would like less Hitler and Stalin on the curriculum, but they don’t want them to be replaced by British history: they want more world history. ‘Everyone’s talking about the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya,’ one of them said to me recently, ‘but we can’t talk sensibly about them because we don’t know anything about their history: it’s embarrassing.’ National identity is a complex, many-layered thing, and to treat it as if it were simply and exclusively the culmination of a centuries-long march of events within the narrow confines of the British Isles is a radically ignorant form of dumbing down.

Even more calamitous is the prospect of history teaching in the schools confining itself to the transmission and regurgitation of ‘facts’. According to the critics, facts have all but disappeared from the classroom, and the inclusion in the curriculum of exercises in source-criticism are useless. Yet source-criticism teaches students not to accept passively every fact and argument they are presented with. When I started teaching history at university in the 1970s, many first-year students were incapable of critical reading of this kind. (I ran into trouble with one class when I began to point out the problems in the arguments put forward by one of the books I had set them to read. ‘Why did you make us read it,’ one of them complained, ‘if you don’t agree with it?’) Better history teaching in schools changed all that, but now Gove wants to abandon these skills all over again. Better History declares that ‘it is by the acquisition and use of historical knowledge that historians are primarily judged’ – but in reality that only makes a Mastermind contestant.

It is possible to teach actual skills only if history is taught in depth, and that means a focus on a limited number of specialised topics. Of course, students need to know at least in outline the longer-term context of what they study. But if you make this context the core element in the curriculum, you are sacrificing depth for breadth, and you will end up with a superficial gallop through the centuries. At Oxford, when I was an undergraduate, we all nominally studied English history from the Anglo-Saxons to the 20th century, from Alfred the Great to Winston Churchill, or to put it in somewhat less heroic terms, Ethelred the Unready to Neville Chamberlain (we didn’t bother in those days with the Welsh or the Scots). But in practice, if we were going to learn how to do any thinking of our own, we had time only to study discrete and often unrelated topics: the rise of the gentry and their role in the outbreak of the English Civil War (not the course of events in the 1640s), the role of party in the time of Queen Anne (not the chronology of her reign), the reasons for the failure of the 1848 Revolutions (not the actual course of the revolutions).

History is by its nature a critical, sceptical discipline. Historians commonly see one of their main tasks as puncturing myths, demolishing orthodoxies and exposing politically motivated narratives that advance spurious claims to objectivity. Schama advocates the return of ‘storytelling in the classroom’ as the ‘necessary condition’ of debate and analysis. He is confident that a narrative approach doesn’t have to rule out analysis, since distinctions can be made ‘between just and unjust conflicts’ and students can develop ‘analytical knowledge of the nature of power’. But simply telling children that British history has been full of conflict doesn’t tell them anything about the distortions of power; what they need to learn is scepticism about the narratives presented by historians, including of course Schama’s own account of British history.

Better History has proposed that students should be tested on how they construct a narrative. But in the time since it advanced this proposal it has done nothing to flesh it out. Perhaps it should have paid more attention to Sellar and Yeatman’s imperishable 1066 and All That, with its spoof exam questions: ‘Arrange in this order: (a) Henry I; (b) Henry II; (c) Henry III. Do not attempt to answer more than once.’ More than a century ago Lord Acton advised his students at Cambridge to ‘study problems, not periods’. Some years ago, Eric Hobsbawm, referring to two history textbooks that presented old-fashioned narratives without interpretation, noted that they made ‘the systematic consideration’ of historical problems ‘virtually impossible’. Gove, Schama and their allies are confusing history with memory. History is a critical academic discipline whose aims include precisely the interrogation of memory and the myths it generates. It really does matter to historians that there isn’t any evidence that Alfred burned the cakes, or that Nelson and Wellington weren’t national heroes to everyone. For those in power, this makes history as a discipline not only useless but dangerous too.