Gove to spin the past in schools

Five years ago, the French government introduced a law demanding that school children be taught the “positive aspects” of French colonialism. It was swiftly met with protest from ex-colonies and the President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, refused to meet Nicolas Sarkozy, then leader of the UMP. Confronted with growing pressure, including a petition signed by more than 1,000 historians and intellectuals, the law was repealed.

In France, the government was comprehensively thwarted in their attempt to rewrite history but Michael Gove, Education Secretary, is now trying to impose similar revisions to history teaching in British schools.

Gove clearly expressed his intentions when he offered Niall Ferguson a job after a talk at the Guardian Hay Festival. Ferguson is a right-wing historian and is often criticised as an empire apologist, who told the audience that children should be taught that the “big story” of the past 500 years “is the rise of western domination of the world.”

Gove, a member of the audience, rejoicing in this kindred spirit, asked: “My question is, will Harvard let you spend more time in Britain to help us design a more exciting and engaging history curriculum?”

The Education Secretary has hardly kept secret his desire to restore “traditional” teaching, with a renewed focus on historical “narrative”. He idolises the great Whig historians, like Thomas Macaulay, who viewed the past as a process that led to the peak of civilisation: British parliamentary democracy. Macaulay’s work is now understood to reveal a great deal more about his position, writing in 1848, than any events beforehand. Such is the nature of Whig history; it creates a false past to celebrate the present.

In promoting a narrative of progress, Gove will reintroduce Whig history to our schools, and foster a national identity that glories in a false sense of Britain’s past, including imperialism. Not only is this a naked distortion of history, but it risks creating a national identity that ignores the reality of the present as well. We live in a multi-cultural plural society, but setting Britain’s identity back in imperial glories will alienate many ethnic groups.

We should appreciate and teach our children about the diversity of history, where multiple narratives exist at once. History is an engaging and messy subject, whose nuances and subtleties endow it with rigour and energy. Ferguson’s interpretation should be placed amongst others, not imposed as the sole truth.

Children should be encouraged to engage and question narratives like “the rise of the West”. The recent focus on empathy and role-play, teaching children to use their imagination to engage with the experience of people in the past, is a particularly useful approach to the study of history in primary education. The creativity of this approach encourages an open understanding of the past. Later, students should be exposed to the possibilities of interpretation and the multitude of experiences and voices in history.

There is some value in the Gove-Ferguson approach, in that both advocate a greater scope in the history curriculum. A wider chronology would increase students’ knowledge of the past, rather than the pocketed education of current A-levels.

Yet a narrative of progress for present political ends should be resisted at all costs. If we can truly “learn” from the past, we should look to the French example and meet any such distortions with the same unequivocal rejection.


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