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Thursday, 7 March 2013

Gove's School History Reforms "Debated" Again


First as farce...
OK - so the original title of this post was too flippant a way of drawing your attention my thoughts on the interchange you can find here and here between the historian to whom we at HotE like, for legal reasons, to refer as ‘Fire-His-Ass’ (hereafter FHA) and the historian to whom we at HotE like, for legal reasons, to refer as Regius Prof, or Sir Regius Prof as he now likes to be known, on the subject of Michael 'Pob' Gove's reforms of the schools history curriculum. So I've changed it to something more 'vanilla'.  It is, after all, a pretty serious subject.

But anyway, now that I’ve drawn a bit of traffic and attention, let me meditate on the implications of all this for History.  As it stands this all looks (especially, I imagine, to outsiders) more than a little bit pathetic: like a pissing contest between two overgrown schoolboys.  You have to think that if this is the best that modern history can do the discipline really is in a parlous state.  You could say that the fact that this became an exchange at all was a victory for FHA (see here for an analogy).  Regular readers of this blog will know that I have quite a lot of time for Sir Regius even if, as in this episode, he sometimes makes you want to give him a good shake.  The British Medical Association, I believe, tells us it’s dangerous to shake small children who become vexatious but I’m not sure what its stance is on Regius Professors of History, even where, as here, the boundary between the two categories becomes a little blurred.  Really, though, you do wish that sometimes he’d just forego his desire to have the last word and rise above the provocation offered by FHA who, as a cleverly commercially-manufactured, million-selling crowd-pleaser is surely little more than History’s answer to Justin Bieber or, perhaps better, given his age, origins and likely lack of consequence, The Bay City Rollers.  [Actually that doesn't really work as I suspect it'd be the parents rather than the teeny-boppers that would mostly be into him; we'll come back to glib analogies.] After all, if you read his initial piece in the London Review of Books and compare it with FHA’s response, Sir Regius wins hands down.  His response to FHA’s goading only undermines that.

So this was never going to be a clash of intellectual heavyweights but it descends to such a level that I suggest the referee steps in and disqualifies the pair of them for bringing the game into disrepute.  You might say I’m in no position to criticise anyone on this count, and you’d be right, but then I’m not a Regius Professor or a knight of the realm and I never will be.  Nor am I a Harvard professor with a senior research post at Jesus College Oxford, and nor will I ever be.  How does it make any sense at all to judge competence to think about these things by the number of popular books sold or TV appearances, let alone the number of school-aged children?  If we go by the first two then we’d have to proclaim Andrew Roberts and Dan Snow as the greatest living historians, and then God help us all.  As to the third, when did fecundity become a historical qualification?  I suspect that all this – like those academics who feature pictures of their children on the web-pages – comes down to a statement that, believe it or not, I’ve had sex and here’s the proof.  By those lights – I doubt I’ve sold even 10,000 books, only have a personal chair in a provincial university, never went to Oxbridge, have never had a TV series and am a mere divorcee whose loins have, to date at least, proved fruitless – I’m a nobody (perhaps there is something in it after all…) and I doubt either of them gives a damn what I think, probably rightly too.  That said, I suspect that my first (and worst) book may have had more influence upon my own little corner of the discipline, and the way people think about the practice of history and archaeology within it, than their oeuvre has thus far had on their (admittedly rather larger and more populous) patches.  On the other hand, my father was a history teacher so I do have some (though maybe not much) experience of what professionals in that field might think.  I also like to think that I am rather prettier than either of them but let’s let that pass.  [That last bit was irony by the way; I know that some people who read my words aren’t good at spotting that.]


This debate, if we can even call it that, barely reaches the dizzy intellectual heights of a playground ‘I may be rubbish at football but at least I don’t smell’ exchange, but it brings out a crucial issue.  It takes us to the heart of the crisis facing history.  When thinking about raising what I have called ‘the siege’ this gives us a choice (but in detail I’ll have to come back to that another time).  It may not be a proper choice, as both Sir Regius and FHA are conservative in their views of history (the difference being whether the c in conservative is upper or lower case).  The way they do history does not differ, fundamentally; it's just that Sir Regius is (in my view) rather considerably better at it.  But there's an important choice to be made all the same.  There is a vital difference between them and it behoves everyone with any sort of claim to being interested in history to choose on which side of that difference they stand.  As will become clear, my view is that (although, clearly, they don’t) serious, committed historians ought to take their stance on the side of Sir Regius, for all its eventual limitations.  My view will come as no surprise, given that I have made – on this very blog – many points similar points to his.  This is not to say that I don’t think there are two or three points that Sir Regius makes in his LRB article that are fundamentally mistaken (one or two examples of incoherence are pointed up in the letters), but there’s no space to delve into those.

On the one hand, FHA’s view (backed by Gove) is that history is sequential fact-learning (they call it ‘narrative’ but let’s be clear) focused upon Britain.  Sir Regius on the other hand supports the status quo and the relative stress laid upon source criticism, imagination, empathetic exercise and so on, in which the wider world features at least as strongly.  The latter, says FHA, has been a disaster, although no evidence is given as to why.  All we are offered is sneering assertion, anecdote and hearsay from people (unsurprisingly) who share his viewpoint (e.g. an elitist diatribe by an inexperienced teacher in reactionary, Gove-founded rag Standpoint), rounded off with the conclusion that anyone who disagrees doesn’t have a view worth listening to.  This, I should say, is pretty typical of males of FHA’s socio-educational background and intellectual formation: they argue by swaggering assertion, shiny, glib (but paperweight) analogy and a supreme self-confidence born of the notion (drummed into them from the age of eight or so) that their views are inherently superior to everyone else’s because they themselves are, by virtue of their socio-educational background, superior to everyone else.  Ironically, this eventually makes them far worse historians than everyone else because a little self-doubt is essential to good history.  FHA is a fine example of all that (as is the historian to whom, for legal reasons, we at HotE frequently refer as Gussie Finknottle); Sir Regius rather less so (however bullish he may seem, his irresistible urge to answer back to every criticism speaks, to my mind, of a nagging and persistent insecurity in spite of all his considerable and well-deserved success, which is kind of sweet really).  Be all that as it may, the only evidence proffered in support of the Gove/FHA contention comes in the comments to Sir Regius’ LRB piece where one of the devisers of the Schools History Project (SHP) proclaims it a failure because of a flight away from the subject among students given a choice.  I am unconvinced either that this is, in itself, a disaster or that the solution is to pander to what excites teenagers.  Is the solution to the flight of teenagers away from the lab sciences the introduction of more experiments featuring bad egg gas and explosions?  I’m not a scientist but I expect the answer is no.

Let us consider FHA’s position.  Note, first, that everyone who does not share his position, or who defends the current situation is ‘politicised’ or 'partisan', as though his own position isn’t.  This has long been a standard tactic of demagogues of the Right, to berate educators or other holders of office as ‘politicised’ or 'partisan', essentially for not being politicised or partisan in the way they’d like.  The conservative or Conservative view, you see, is not political; it’s not Right, it’s just right: the way things should be.  This would be undercut by FHA’s desire to disrupt the status quo with a radical move back to the alleged good old days, pre-SHP, but here he makes a currently not untypical move by the Right (and pseudo-Left), which is to denigrate and thus, in a way, politically decentre, the status quo as ‘the establishment’.  The move attempts to recoup a sort of fundamental conservatism even while proposing radical, reactionary change.  Note how FHA scorns Oxbridge ivory towers, in spite of being an independent-school-and-Oxford-educated beneficiary of all the advantages (including, let it be said, access to popular media) that that background brings; in spite of having taught at Oxbridge for most of his career and retaining a grace-and-favour post at Jesus College (ironically, Sir Regius’ alma mater).

What Gove and FHA offer is narrative and fact.  I have argued before on this blog that factual historical narrative does not teach you ‘how we got where we are’ or help one to understand one’s place in the world, and that it is not ‘relevant’, as relevance is usually understood; there’s no need for me to repeat that argument.  The points to stress are that any narrative depends upon selection and choice (and is thus politically implicated) and that no facts, historical or otherwise, exist independently of language.  This means both that the language we choose to describe facts (‘victory’ or ‘defeat’, for example) is not neutral and that the function that facts fulfil within narrative depends, as in linguistic syntax, upon their juxtapositions to other facts, the choice of the mode of the narrative, and so on.  I’ve made these points before (they’re hardly novel anyway).  Simple narrative is not – it cannot be – politically neutral.  The national narrative – and this is clear from Gove’s own speech – is predicated upon being, in itself, explanation, and upon the notion that modern Britain is somehow the best of all possible worlds.  Similar points undermine the highly incoherent notion of ‘cultural literacy’, supported by Gove and other right-wingers, and ‘national memory’ but there’s no space to go into that.  It is impossible to claim that a return to a focus on British historical narrative is anything other than shot through with politically-laden ideas or that those ideas are not precisely the ones that Gove’s opponents accuse them of being.  The implications of any attempt to claim either of these things will emerge below.

Why does it matter to study British history?  “Surely”, says FHA, “they [Sir Regius and his ilk] can't sincerely think it's acceptable for children to leave school (as mine have all done) knowing nothing whatever about the Norman conquest, the English civil war or the Glorious Revolution, but plenty (well, a bit) about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement?”  Surely.  Note the rhetorical strategy.  It’s there too in a response by another Cambridge professor (let’s, for legal reasons, call him ‘Grave Robin’) to Sir Regius’ LRB article: “I doubt that anyone [anyone] interested in history, professionally or otherwise, thinks that the purpose of studying the past is to acquire skills, let alone that what Evans describes as ‘the transmission and regurgitation of “facts”’ is unimportant.”  Let me say, first, that I don’t see any reason at all why it is ipso facto bad to know ‘nothing about the Norman Conquest, the English Civil War or the Glorious Revolution but plenty … about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement’; at least I don’t see that leaving school knowing nothing about the Norman Conquest, the English Civil War or the Glorious Revolution but plenty about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement is any worse than leaving school knowing nothing about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement but plenty about the Norman Conquest, the English Civil War or the Glorious Revolution.  The only argument in Gove’s or FHA’s favour is the ‘cultural literacy’ one, that not knowing about the facts they list puts a student at a disadvantage in a culture where political and other participation requires the ability to talk knowledgably about the Norman Conquest, etc.  But what if we want to create a culture where it’s important to be able to talk knowledgably about the civil rights movement or the New Deal (no prizes for guessing why the latter wouldn’t be on FHA’s list!).  Even speaking as a specialist in pre-modern history I have to say I’d rather the latter culture than the former, but I’d prefer, to either, a culture where people had the skills to be able to think critically about a historical event and look up and assess the facts of the matter, rather than just thinking that fact-knowing was all there was to civil or political engagement.  So, even as someone interested in history, at a professional level, actually I most certainly do see the fundamental purpose of a historical education as the acquisition of skills (maybe Robin and I differ over what is a skill) and I do see the regurgitation of facts as unimportant.  So, FHA, we surely do, and, Robin, you doubt wrongly.  And?

Then the defence becomes, via the historian to whom, for legal reasons, we will refer as Long John, author of that mighty historiographical work British History for Dummies (a tome curiously absent from his Anglia Ruskin web-site but of which I was the reader – you can fill in your own ‘target audience focus group’ gag here) - just, you might say, the man to advise the Tory Party - that ‘the kids’ want to know what happened.  They like stories; they want to be entertained or excited.  Sure, but I return to my science analogy.  Can you imagine a lab science curriculum based upon considerations like these?  It would involve the listing of things that happen, a descent to the experiments with the most dramatic results.  Add X to Y and … Bang!  Woo!  Cool!  So what?  You could make an analogous, and equally coherent, argument (to FHA’s about history-teaching) that all ‘hard science’ teaching should focus on the learning of results: knowing what happens when you mix X and Y, add A to B, or do Z in fashion C.  It’d be useful, practically.  It’d certainly give students some orientation in the world they inhabit.  But science (I’m not a scientist as I keep saying but I don’t think I’m way off-beam here) is about knowing principles, knowing why these things happen and how you’d test the notion that they do, or that they necessarily do, not just that they do.  The question one then has to ask of Gove, FHA and the rest, quite apart from querying their assumption that history teaching of the current kind is necessarily not exciting or interesting (and Sir Regius in a letter replying to the replies to his article – yes, again – provides decent evidence to the contrary), is why they think that historical education should be less than scientific? 

In my view, one produces politically-engaged citizens through teaching general principles and the skills of finding out if or why, of testing the extent to which, those principles are valid, not by drumming into them a series of events whose importance is held to be self-evident in a story which is explanation and whose justification is the idea that the present is the best of all possible worlds.  Unlike the author of the Standpoint piece, I just cannot see the notion that teachers challenge supposedly eternal canonical ‘truths’ in ‘progressive’ education as a bad thing (it’s telling that ‘progressive’ is employed a dirty word).   Grave Robin feels he’s scored a real point by pointing out that this Tory view is in fact … wait for it … a ‘Whig’ view of history (a point that Sir Regius had made in any case) but it’s a point that goes nowhere except to the curious counter-factual that if we had a view of history, now, that was based around Tory views of the eighteenth century it would be – get this – different.  Blinding.  The drumming of a standard factual narrative into schoolchildren will not produce critically-engaged citizens, it will produce uncritical acceptance of the status quo as the inevitable and best outcome of ‘our island story’ – that’s why the Right like the idea.  Would the ludicrous parody of a science curriculum I set out earlier produce better scientists or citizens better equipped to deal with the world around them?  I’m not a scientist but I expect the answer is no.

So let’s return to the Glorious Revolution.  How would knowing about it make you a better citizen than knowing about Rosa Parks and MLK?  What on earth is there in learning about the English Civil War, let alone the Norman Conquest, that would make you a more engaged citizen?  OK, next time the issue of the Divine Right of Kings or the legality of levying Ship Money without parliamentary consent become political hot potatoes, the next time that the King of Norway and the Duke of Normandy team up for a cunningly simultaneous invasion of England, we’ll be looking to you for political and strategic advice.  For Gove/FHA and co., there are two responses available to this admittedly facetious point.  One (the better) is that the significance of an event transcends its factual specifics; that it’s not the what but the how and why that matter.  The other is that the importance of the events of 1066, 1642 or 1688 consists simply in the fact that they, in and of, themselves led to the situation we find ourselves in – in Britain – today, whereas the civil rights movement (rather arguably) didn’t.

Consider the first response.  It produces, in return, two questions.  First: how does one evaluate issues of how and why without source criticism?  Second: if the significance of knowing about 1066, 1642 or 1688 does not consist in the specifics of those events, if its value is more than simply learning a triumphal ‘island story’ narrative, if its role in forming a politically-engaged and responsible citizenry transcends the event itself, then why learn about that particular event rather than the end of the Roman Empire or the coronation of Charlemagne or the revolutions of 1848?  If there is a transcendent value to the study of events, is it not in explaining and evaluating them and their significance?  If one is to explain an event, rather than just learn it, then one has to question the idea that it simply followed on naturally from the preceding event in the sequence – that other things were possible.  Thus one questions narrative as explanation (and thus, at least implicitly, the importance of narrative context).  If one wants to evaluate an event, rather than just learn it, one has to weigh up its positive and negative effects - unless of course one simply wants to teach children that all things are for the best that lead to the best of all possible worlds.  Weighing up positives and negatives, critically, implies looking at the problems of the sources (or ‘identifying bias’ in the awful language of school history that we have to spend so long trying to exorcise at university): source criticism.  If one wants to get away from a simple depersonalised history of institutions or Great Men and Battles (and note that the triumphal island story does rather minimise any sort of attention to gender), evaluating the consequences of an event involves an exercise in trying to think how people at the time, of different sorts, experienced them – unless, as I keep saying, it’s all for the best in our celebratory island story.  Doing that means an appeal to a shared humanity, in other words an exercise in imagination and empathy.

What I am arguing, then, is that the FHA/Gove/Long John approach cannot logically remain within the terms of its own rhetoric - unless it aims actively to suppress critical evaluation, and/or unless it aims no higher than the promulgation of historical facts, whether as an empty-headed Lang-esque series of lame puns or a Deary-esque sequence of gory factoids, training history students to be no more than prurient raconteurs, or as a triumphal, teleological nationalist narrative, unless – in other words – it does exactly what its critics accuse it of doing; unless – in fine – it ceases not merely to be a historical education but an education of any kind.

Let me put that another way.  Unless it adopts the second response listed above to the question of how the value of knowing about an event transcends its factual detail (that the importance of the events of 1066, 1642 or 1688 consists in the simple fact that, in and of themselves, they led to the situation we find ourselves in – in Britain – today whereas, say, the civil rights movement didn’t) and thus admits to the charges its opponents lay before it, the Gove/FHA idea of school history cannot logically remain within its own rhetorical parameters.  The moment it tries to transcend the accusation of narrow, teleological, triumphalist, nationalist fact-learning, it transgresses – it cannot but transgress – onto the territory, aims, ideals and principles of the ‘progressive’ SHP history-teaching that it claims to despise.  The moment it claims to be other than what its opponents accuse it of being, it empties its own rhetoric of any and all content and reveals itself as what it is: a narrow-minded reactionary attempt to play politics by pandering to the lowest common-denominator amongst Daily Mail columnists (like FHA himself) and the more gullible elements of their readership.

The reason why schools history prepares pupils so badly for university history has nothing to do with the current curriculum or the ways the subject is taught, or by whom.  The problem lies in political interference in schools and in the examination processes that that has engendered.  There are great history teachers, there are mediocre ones, and there are terrible ones, as in any other subject.  I had a mix at my school, from wonderful to dreadful.  The problem came (and here things do get ironic for the FHA view) with the Thatcherite and sub-Thatcherite (New Labour) mantra of choice.  The desire to ‘enable’ parents as consumers and give them a choice of local schools led to the production of league tables according to exam results (everyone knows how problematic those tables are).  Once that happened then – naturally and indeed rightly – teachers demanded more transparency about the marking of examination papers, how marks were awarded and so on.  That has led in turn to the current situation where teachers have to teach to the test, where they have to drill their students in mark-scoring.  That leaves the legacy that we have to deal with in universities, a deep-seated, ingrained belief that there will be measurable ways to get specific marks.  Recently I was asked (not by a bad or lazy student) ‘how many historians do I need to cite to get the best mark?’  Students write in specific ways because they are drilled into thinking that they will get them marks.  None of any of that has anything at all to do with the ‘progressive’ history curriculum.  It certainly wouldn’t get any better under Gove’s reforms.  What would really improve schools history would be to remove political interference from it.  But, as Sir Regius says, that’s unlikely ever to happen.  History is (or it ought to be) dangerous.  I tell prospective students that a history degree is (or ought to be) three years of thinking dangerously.  FHA benefited from precisely that, you might say.  It’s a shame he now wants to make it so safe for everyone else.