Britain’s history curriculum is about to return to the past. Michael Gove’s plan to change the way this important subject is taught in our schools “smells of Whiggery; of history as chauvinism”, according to Professor Tom Devine. In the second of a series of two articles (part one here), I look at the dangers of Gove’s desire to make history a patriotic subject.
History should be beyond ideology. History should be about the truth. It should be about looking at past societies, not judging them, and not attempting to own them. A patriotic view of history is equally as dangerous as a Whiggish view of history. It risks, like Whiggism, looking at the past in terms of black and white, good and bad, us and them. It risks transforming “our island story” into a myth about the glory of Britannia, rather than an examination of the way Britannia used to be, warts and all.
Why is Gove so focused on “our island story”, anyway? Simon Schama, who is to play a leading role on these reforms, keeps talking about the way in which history helps young people make sense of the world around them. I am sure that Schama, the author of Citizens, appreciates the vital importance which events like the French Revolution have in history. But Schama’s list of topics which all students should understand does not include topics like the Enlightenment which, although helping shape our modern world, were never purely British phenomena. And this generation, more than any generation previously, will need to understand regions of the world which have previously been denied sufficient attention by the history curriculum.
Gove’s patriotic Whiggism is dangerous. Gove has said,
We can celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world, from the role of the Royal Navy in putting down the slave trade, to the way in which, since 1688, this nation has been a beacon for liberty that others have sought to emulate. We will also ensure that it is taught in a way in which we can all take pride.
Simon Schama deserves recognition for having disagreed with this view and saying that history is “not the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us, but it is, indispensably, an understanding of the identity of us.” But if Gove gets his way, young people may soon be denied a full understanding of British, let alone world, history.
Students should be taught about how Britain helped end the Atlantic slave trade. They should also be told about how Britain helped to create it. They should be taught about the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights, both crucial in the development of the modern British political system. But let’s not pretend that these were real triumphs of liberty and democracy in a modern sense. We cannot gloss over the uncomfortable parts of history. What is the point in lying to schoolchildren?
Gove’s attempts to put the Tory back into history by making it a patriotic topic risk patronising and belittling our young people. Instead of being given the right to explore the past, they will be told stories. These will be stories of great men, not stories of societies. They will be stories of a few islands, despite our place in a huge, globalised world, and an increasingly integrated continent. Most dangerously, they will be stories told from a Whiggish perspective, exaggerating Britain’s role as a defender of liberty and forgetting the fact that our modern democracy, flawed as it may be in many regards, is a relatively recent arrival in British politics and the British Parliament. This new history will not prepare young people for the modern world, will not give them a proper understanding of the past and, perhaps most importantly from our perspective as liberals, will not prepare them, because of its Whiggish position on British liberty, to see the unfairness and injustice in the society of today.