Opinion: Gove’s history – Whiggish, patriotic and wrong, part 2

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.

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12 Comments

  • uglyfatbloke 7th Oct '11 - 11:43am

    Are we not even a little bit concerned that one of the key figures in this scheme is an English nationallst? That does not prevent him from being a fine scholar, but imagine the uproar if a Scottish nationalist scholar was appointed to such a position.

  • Bernard Salmon 7th Oct '11 - 12:27pm

    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.

    While I agree with the general thrust of both this and the previous article, I think we need to recognise that there is only a limited time available in schools to teach history, so I’m not sure there would be the time to teach the Enlightenment in the sort of depth it probably requires. HIstory students at GCSE/A Level and their equivalents should of course be made aware that there was something called the Enlightenment and the bare bones of what it involved, but I think it’s a topic I’d expect to be covered more at undergraduate level.

  • George Morris 7th Oct '11 - 3:14pm

    Thanks for your comments, everybody. It’s good to see people talking about a topic which hasn’t really had the attention it deserves in the press. I can’t answer everybody’s comments, and in some cases it would be pointless to do so because people’s positions on history are often very deeply held.

    I would, however, like to pick up on Toby’s comment about the slave trade. If you look at my article, you’ll see that I’m talking about the Atlantic slave trade, as Gove was. So while it is true that “slavery has existed in most societies with hierarchies”, the role of Britain in creating the transatlantic market in slaves is significant. That’s not an attempt to “guilt-trip” people, however; modern Britons have no responsibility for the slave trade, and no responsibility for the 1688 Revolution or the Magna Carta or the Civil War either. History isn’t the story of modern people. I agree wholeheartedly with your comment that “I imagine those Britons living today who have engaged in the slave trade are in a criminal minority, and it would be inappropriate to tell Britons that they ought to feel guilty for the actions of long-dead men whose actions they have no connection to.” I hope that I did not suggest anything else in my article.

  • The point of teaching history in the schools should be to help the average student understand the narrative of what happened and how we got here from there. It should not be to train students to think like historians. The number of students who are going to become historians is very small, and the discussions among historians involve very arcane details of source comparison, evidence weighing, and statistical analysis. But the only reason historians can do any of that is because they already know what happened. The average student doesn’t, and to skip the narrative phase of history teaching is to turn the entire edifice upside down.

  • Paul Griffiths 7th Oct '11 - 7:29pm

    History shouldn’t be part of the national curriculum at all. That curriculum should be restricted to what the state can reasonably insist that all children be taught. And that, in turn, should be directed towards supporting citizenship in a liberal, capitalist democracy. Everything else should be optional, and as far as possible at the child’s discretion.

  • If study were limited to “supporting citizenship in a liberal, capitalist democracy” then there wouldn’t be much room left for science or maths or the arts or languages or literature or any of the other areas of the vast field of human learning which most of us hope the schools introduce young people to.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Oct '11 - 12:29am


    History should be beyond ideology. History should be about the truth.

    The trouble is there is an awful lot of truth, and depending on which bits you choose to puil out, you can make a whole variety of different stories. I’m not sure it is possible to have a single objective “truth” about any sort of broad history.

    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.

    The trouble is, it seems to be natural for people to think in this ways. In any story we seem to have a need to pick out the goodies and the baddies, to identify a team we will follow and a team we will boo. You could also say (why didn’t you?) that the approach to history where the British are the baddies, nasty imperialists, slave-traders, etc, is just as bad – but I think some find it fun to see history that way just as it was seen the other way in previous generations.

    Why is Gove so focused on “our island story”, anyway?

    Because it’s about where we live seems to me to be a reasonable answer to that.

    But if Gove gets his way, young people may soon be denied a full understanding of British, let alone world, history.

    They are already denied this. School history teaching these days seems to be about picking out a few gobbets rather than telling the whole story, so children end up with no idea how things came to be as they are.

    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

    I suspect you will find almost no schoolchildren are taught about the “Glorious Revolution” or the Bill of Rights, because they are rather boring compared to the glamour of the Tudors or World War II (which it seems are mostly what school history tends to be about these days).

    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.

    The problem being that stories of great men are much more fun, particularly to children, than stories about economics.

    They will be stories of a few islands, despite our place in a huge, globalised world, and an increasingly integrated continent.

    Well, there are fascinating stories from other places. But how are we going to teach children every story about every place? I suggest that in what you want to be taught you are no different from Gove – picking out those things that suit you, and giving them the interpretation that suits you. They are different from Gove’s only because you have different politics from Gove.

    There is plenty I should like to see taught in school lessons, though I fear it would be somewhat idiosyncratic. William Cobbett’s “History of the Protestant Reformation” as the antidote to Whiggsim), the falling from the sky of the Golden Stool into Osei Tutu’s lap (pre-colonial Africa, just to show there is more to Africa than wicked British going in and colonising it), the foundation of the Swiss Confederation with the stirring story of William Tell’s altercation with Gessler as the sort of great man stuff you hate but kids love (to show democracy is not just a British thing). But I would not pretend my choice was in any way objective.

  • Richard Underhill. 19th Apr '20 - 12:07pm

    Michael Gove had the advantage of going last on The Andrew Marr Programme, BBC1 19/4/2020, 09.00-10,00.
    The researchers on that programme have done well by finding an expert on vaccines.
    She had the advantage of a skill in answering questions succinctly, which others might try to learn if they want to be believed.
    Michael Gove is not a doctor. He should not try to be a spin-doctor. He said he had read the (front page) article in the Sunday Times, which he obviously disliked, but was unable to disprove, against the previous evidence of numerous front-line medics. whose health and lives the country treasures.
    If he were to tell the truth he would need to resign.

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