Sunday, 27 April 2014

Who won the history wars?

Mark Taylor, IOI Education Forum, March 10 2014

Transport of the Wounded by Ugo Matania from the Wellcome Library

Back in the ancient past of 2010 Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove proposed a new school History curriculum which was roundly condemned by most of the acknowledged experts.  Gove promised to listen and in 2013 was back again with a revised version.  However, this time he was accused of constructing a ‘pub quiz’ and told that he had not listened at all.  Evans, Schama, Ferguson as well as the Better History Group were courted then ignored, testimony to Gove’s apparent ‘tyranny’ over the process.  August bodies such as the Historical Association, the Royal Historical Society and the British Academy were also said to be miffed by the lack of consultation.  Then the underlying argument was apparently had out (over skills v chronology; over British v world; over facts v meaning) and Gove promised to revise the proposals. Now, it’s 2014 and the updated History curriculum is being advanced as part of the new National Curriculum beginning in September 2014.  But it’s also 100 years since World War One began which leads to the question: Who won the History wars?

The answer is no one. If we consider what the curriculum is due to contain from September it is clear that periodisation is not a key issue but chronology is – and overall the previously sacred concept of causation is downplayed. This bland chronology – ‘pick and mix’ more than pub quiz - is supposedly more academic than the New Labour version. It certainly seems to suit modern conservatism and there is no question that dates are important. However, there is no change to the idea of 1066 constituting the significant milestone in British national history –  despite a ‘beefier’ approach to the ancients in primary schools. So it is not really that distinctive from the New Labour version it replaces.  Under New Labour the history curriculum focus switched to ‘diversity’ based on emphasising ‘change’ as well as continuity. The concept of ‘significance’ was also elevated and a little bit of empathy became a lot of lesson planning. In short, the conceptual ground was already laid for the disruption of intellectual coherence over the nature of the past.

So what is the issue if there is not that much real change in curriculum content, and certainly not as much as the media discussion implies?  Superficially, there does seem to be some kind of developing split between the conservative ‘chronologists’ and the New Labour ‘understanders’. Undoubtedly, the level of attention in the press and media has contributed to the promising signs of ‘real debate’ that many historians and the public are said to crave and wear as a badge of their integrity.  But is this factionalism over positions really so deep? For one thing, Gove has responded to the claims that his initial proposal were too much ‘little England’. And the critics – especially history teachers - seem satisfied. Nevertheless, there are technical and intellectual limitations to this point.  The technical limitation remains the fact that the curriculum is not statutory for all schools, given the ‘opt-out’ provisions for academies and free schools. The intellectual limitation concerns the growing trend to celebrate the subjective self genealogically rather than the objective past historically. Gove has not been able to address this. As a result we have a curriculum debate that turns on the ‘right kind’ of history (chronology or understanding) rather than what actually happened historically and how we use it and judge it. And how it judges us. Overall, it’s more of a political inversion in the present than a historical exploration of the past.

This may well suit those who like a good argument, many of them the historians in the first paragraph above, but it is of questionable educational value. If we consider the recent and ongoing focus on World War One as a living example of the past this becomes clearer. Relevant debates have often been more about the correct interpretation of the war rather than why it happened. Although causation always lurks underneath such events for the discerning mind of the students we should be trying to reach, the most striking feature of the current series of commemorative events has been their drive to understand and empathise rather than explain. Thus, we have the frankly ridiculous scenario where people in all walks of life appear openly grateful that the there are four years of time to commemorate the war. They think we have plenty of time to  get all the various types of communities represented in order to cover all their perspectives. One has the feeling that if the whole war itself could be fought again in front of their eyes they would only then be truly satisfied that history has been served.  This mimetic barbarism certainly has its place, but not in education for thinking students.  This chronological understanding, to bring the two curricular themes of the two political poles together, is not the history today’s students need.  Why? Because they are capable of more, and will ask more of their minds - if not their teachers.

Those who want to teach history to more purpose than such superficial impressionism are necessarily forced to consider causation as opposed to ‘trends over time’ in developing student understanding. But this breaks the current consensual approach to the subject that ultimately represents the political society we currently have in place: an all-class alliance for the intellectual narcissist that wants a history of the self more than the world. Certainly this is the pick and mix implication of the current discussion. Where is the sense of what we actually have to know?

Strangely, the politicians at the centre of the discussion seem to have forgotten how to use history dynamically to serve their own ends. Curricular contortions seem to trump the actual historical events we are supposed to be finding out about. The advanced technocrat will note that most children will still not have more than 1 hour  a week to study the subject and will still not study it beyond Key Stage 3 (year 9).  All in all, it just adds up to the end of education as a political outlook, such is the weak level of historical illumination on offer. Perhaps this explains the historical rise of Gove more than his educational vision.  The lack of a political articulation of what it means to be educated means that the curriculum debate is missing a very big trick, and risks perpetuating the conditions for our own intellectual stasis. Instead, the rise in suffering and empathy risks creating a-historical historians who say anything is permitted and fail to distinguish properly between past and present. 

What has caused the fossilisation to be presented as its opposite? Two factors stand out.
First, a lack of an imaginative (as opposed to merely imitative) classical outlook in most modern historians means they ape modern methodologists and pedagogues – and rarely illuminate the past itself as a dynamic contest of ruling sets of ideas. Who has compared the slaughter of World War One to the Peloponnesian War for what it tells us about human nature – and hubris? No-one. Instead, we continue to get the poets version of the war generalised across the country, because it suits our generation to talk about mindless slaughter not what violence can tell us about deeper themes or why men really fought each other.  World War One as our very own Noble Lie or Foundation Myth – certainly more important than Hastings in the contemporary mindset.

Second, there is an evident disconnect between public memory and private study: schools are looking for connection and belonging not causes – leading to more of the same old descriptive teaching to the middle classes masquerading as explanation for the masses. If we consider another major historical event, the Renaissance, it becomes clear what this means.  The astonishing Renaissance – undoubtedly an elite phenomenon that itself produced the categories of ancient and modern history  -  was already being ‘medievalised’ before World War One by those who were seeking to downplay human creativity at a time of rising social Darwinism. But after the war it further decelerated in  significance – the slaughter of World War One led to the desire to animalise the whole of humanity, arguably a trend that continued with the Holocaust in World War Two.  A metaphorical Donatello’s David, the Holocaust is now close to becoming a self-standing sculpture in the new national curriculum. 

What is missing from this approach? A sense of historical universality about ‘themes’ such as war is preventing intellectual development.  More specificity would begin to address this issue. While personal and empathetic interaction dominates education more broadly a distinctive history education remains an ‘optional’ identity rather than an essential part of a thinking person’s test of truth and the state. Reconnecting the public and private through the cultured judgement of causation remains an intellectual task for our times.

How does this moribund situation look in the classroom? World War One again provides insights. Instead of considering the creative political solutions to break the western front stalemate we have more and more on where the empire’s troops came from to fight in Europe - or which technology kept the war going.  But ‘what was it like in the trenches?’ is the standard way to keep secondary school children stuck in intellectual no man’s land. With this approach persisting, there is little possibility for the war or the curriculum being seen as a vehicle for studying individual ingenuity - and folly - in a time of violence and peace. Which average child these days knows of Churchill’s Gallipoli headspin, or Germany’s Lenin train sent to explode Russia’s aristocracy?  It is all more sorrow in a time of patronage of the dead. Indeed, while he still lived, Harry Patch RIP served for over 100 years in the trenches of the romantic imagination. He might as well have been actually dead for all the intellectual respect he was given in that time.

The current history curriculum may or may not be a vehicle to break this intellectual stalemate, but in truth it does not really matter. Until we have teachers not asking students ‘Should we have fought, kids?’ but students asking teachers ‘It happened. Why, sir?’ we will have the curriculum we deserve. That is, a curriculum that, like the mythical Ofsted cyclops, which seems to dominate the teaching and learning landscape. Is this just a lame duck more than a Trojan Horse for our minds to fool the enemies of our own deception?  The lame duck just moralises the world of the past in the ‘glorious dead’, the Trojan horse – did it really exist? - re-explains it because it shows some of the dead were truly alive. So we do need ancient Thucidydes morality as well as Evan's modern thinking skills.

So what’s missing overall? A debate about the past and the curriculum that emphasises objective judgment of the past rather than subjective experience of what it was to be the past. A sense that the state through the curriculum should educate children to stand on their own feet intellectually and make their own judgements - without the state holding their hands to do it. 

The current curriculum debate appears technically dynamic and to engage with how we approach the past. However, the underlying issue is our moral attitude to ourselves, historically. Ironically, only by genuinely isolating and studying the past specifically will we realise the uniqueness of our current discussion. And possibly educate ourselves in the process. This is about ourselves more than our curriculum.

For details of the new History curriculum see here: