I used to have a tutor (to whom I owe my extensive knowledge of middle Anglo-Saxon cemeteries), who once got himself into a spot of bother as follows:
According to [Dr Maddicott], students at Oxford can get through a degree in history, without knowing anything about Magna Carta or the Glorious Revolution. Mention the Black Death and you will get a blank look. Even the Industrial Revolution seems to have passed some of them by, he says.
“What Oxford historians know when they graduate is now largely a matter of bits and pieces,” said Dr Maddicott, a fellow at Exeter College. “It cannot be assumed that they have a working knowledge of how their own country evolved.”
Thirty years ago the bright young historians coming to Oxford waded through English history from the end of Roman Britain to the mid-20th century. Now it is being suggested the place is filling up with people who might know about witchcraft among the Azande but don’t know their Hanoverians from their late Stuarts.
Irritatingly, this piece from the Oxford Mail, and a brief mention in similar terms in the Independent is all I can find. I say irritatingly because I’m sure I remember reading an interview with him that fleshed out this rather simple-sounding viewpoint a little.
I’m pretty sure I remember him using the term longue durée. His point was not that young blighters today are learning too much o’ this nasty ethnic stuff and not enough good old Bwitish material doncherknow, although this was clearly the interpretation that suited the Oxford Mail, ever keen to have a pop at Gown.
His point was that students weren’t acquiring any sense of the grand sweep, weren’t being forced to get to grips with the long-term evolution of institutions and cultural norms, how warrior kingship gives way to various flavours of monarchy which gives way to oligarchic nationhood which gives way to, er, when are are we actually getting popular democracy? The fact that British history is the most convenient fund to draw upon for this purpose is largely incidental. What are you going to do, retrain your entire academic corpus in French history? We are where we are, literally and figuratively.
This, at any rate, is how I remember his argument. Perhaps nostalgia is making me kind. But at any rate, one thing is certain, and that is that he had earned the right to hold such a view, on account of, you know, being an Oxford don and all.
Michael Gove, on the other hand, is not an Oxford don. Michael Gove is a tit:
The Shadow Schools Sec did a passable impression of Simon Schama today with a vow to bring back narrative history to the national curriculum.
“There is no better way of building a modern, inclusive, patriotism than by teaching all British citizens to take pride in this country’s historic achievements,” he said.
“Which is why the next Conservative Government will ensure the curriculum teaches the proper narrative of British History – so that every Briton can take pride in this nation.”
Hat tip to Paul Waugh – who asked for more detail, and by heaven did he get it, all the way from:
The people who make up Britain – Celts, Anglo-Saxons [sic]
The Roman Invasion [no, this is still broadly correct]
The Dark Ages [sic]
…through to the enigmatic-sounding “Modern history to the present”.
Quite apart from being an object lesson in why you should never let non-experts lay out history syllabuses because they don’t have a bloody clue what they’re talking about, this is also an object lesson in why the Tory front bench, at its heart, has no grasp whatsoever of what liberalism really means.
Because yeah, after twelve years of authoritarian, top-down micro-management from Labour, what we really, really need is some proper authoritarian top-down, micro-management from the Tories! Except this time it’ll be better authoritarian, top-down micro-management! None of these silly Labour goals. It’ll be our silly goals instead! Froth froth!
I hate this. This is exactly what I hate about how Labour operates the education system. Buckets of bullying, nannying, pontificating, interfering, busy-bodying, self-serving, ill-informed crap, poured on the heads of the people who do it for a living. It’s a daily insult, pure and simple – I feel it, and I’m not even a teacher. I’ll take an argument like that from John Maddicott (and let’s remember he was talking about the Oxford syllabus) but I’m damned if I’ll take its intellectually defective shadow from Michael Gove, or anyone else elected to wield power over me.
I hate his wobbly-lipped “patriotic narrative” stance as much as I hate the current frenetic insistence on teaching World War II for its moral lessons and I really hate that. My poor brother had to “do” the Nazis three times at school, just to make sure he’d got it into his head that They Wur Eevl and he should on no account try Nazism at home. Other regimes that have used the teaching of history for self-styled moral purposes include Mao’s China. And that gets taught as an example of Eevl as well. Oh, stop, stop, the irony.
Gove’s appalling little turn displays exactly the same lack of self-awareness as evinced by other Tories when they accuse (most frequently, but not exclusively) Labour of “social engineering” via government policy. Oh, and tax breaks for marriage is what? Just a few of the lads having a lark? Nope, looks damnably like social engineering via government policy to me.
These people are all authoritarians, red and blue alike. Make no mistake. It’s been making me increasingly furious of late, because the contradictions come pouring out of one end of the Tory party as fast as they can shovel faux-liberal propaganda out of the other end. Oh, it’s all “liberal” this and “liberal” that while they’re talking about stuff they approve of. But get on to any subject on which they have an Opinion, like marriage, or how to teach history, and suddenly it’s all “Oh, yes, well, obviously when we said we were all in favour of non-interference and individual responsibility, what we really meant was we’re in favour of it after we’ve laid down the inflexible ground rules.“
And it’s not like the Liberal Democrat party doesn’t have its own problems with contradictory liberalism (airbrushing, anyone?) but at least, on the score of teaching history or anything else, we can hold our heads up high. Not for the first time, I find myself thinking, thank god for David Laws:
No school should be directly accountable to ministers…The 635 pages of the nationalised curriculum should go in the shredder.
Let’s replace it with something closer to the 21 pages that seem to do the job in places like Sweden.