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 first of a series of two articles, I will look at the Whiggish side to Gove’s vision of history.
The Liberal Democrats are the political grandchildren of the Whigs, but we don’t need to share their interpretation of history. At the heart of Whig history is a sort of teleological view of the past, imagining that the ‘story’ of Britain is about the inevitable progress towards the way things are today. Whig historians were always especially interested by individuals, seeing history in terms of ‘great men’, and often committing the crime which every historian should be wary of; anachronism.
Whiggery, in my opinion, has very little to do with liberalism. In fact, as a liberal, I see Whiggery as dangerous. If we believe, for example, that history demonstrates the constant progress of humanity, won’t we become complacent? Liberals must be aware that liberty isn’t something that is achieved piece by piece. It is something which increases and decreases, each liberty must be fought for constantly. There is nothing liberal about complacency.
Michael Gove’s view of history seems to be tainted by both Whiggery and patriotism. Gove’s desire to restore historical figures to the curriculum seems to sound a little like Whiggery’s focus on great men. Gove has expressed concern that,
We have a compulsory history curriculum in secondary schools that doesn’t mention any historical figures – except William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano.
The problem is, of course, that historical figures aren’t always necessary in the study of history. The social history which arose in the 1970s finally wore down the older tradition of history which resembled a series of biographies, because any history which puts eminent individuals at the centre is normally the history of the powerful.
Power has always been the focus of historians; the religious orders of Medieval England, for example, recorded the exploits of monarchs much more frequently than the lives of the people they reigned over. Gove’s desire to restore historical figures to the curriculum risks transforming it into the story of powerful men, not the story of societies.
Even if an excessive focus on individuals did not risk shrinking the scope of history, there is still a great deal of debate about how important any of the individuals remembered as great by history actually were. To take an example from outside Britain, debate is still strong between different interpretations of Hitler. Some see him as a powerful dictator who established a totalitarian state around himself and led it as an absolute, single, all-powerful leader. Others seem him as less important than this, and shift more focus to the local Nazi officials who interpreted Berlin’s commands, often with wildly different consequences.
The study British history can not be reduced to the study of a few men. If Gove wants to return individuals to history, he needs to avoid exaggerating their importance. If he really envisions history being about “our island story”, he should be doing the very opposite, focussing to a greater extent on social and cultural history.
Part two will appear on this site tomorrow.