“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
― George Orwell
UK Education Secretary Michael Gove has unveiled his new History curriculum, and with it his plans to reduce the subject to a romp through the stories of Great White Men of the British Isles, and tales of the Empire. This confining of taught history to a tiny island in the Atlantic, albeit our own, is training a generation of school children for world that no longer exists, while denying them access to a thrilling world beyond their own doorstep.
The Importance of History
If I could write personally for a moment…I love History; it was my favourite subject at school. I was fortunate enough to have an extraordinary teacher called Ms Attwood (I do hope she reads this) who brought the past to life such that I was inspired, awake and engaged in every lesson. She actually taught my first and my final lessons at secondary school and I went on to study the subject at University.
It was the first place I started to see that there was a world of history, that civilisation did not belong to the British, and that often history repeated itself. There were amazing lessons to learn by reviewing and examining what had come before.
Yet, I was happily astonished at how much broader the history curriculum became after my days at secondary school in the nineties. School children were learning about China, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the invasion of Iraq, Tom Paine and Robert Owen. They were learning British History, but they were learning it in the context of the world. It thrilled me to see these young people, through their history lessons, becoming citizens of the world rather than just Britain.
Therefore, to see Gove manhandle the subject out of some sort of whimsical nostalgia for the days of Empire fills me with the kind of contempt one can only truly feel for those who seek to injure that thing which we hold most dear.
What’s All the Fuss About?
One doesn’t need to conduct an extensive search to discover the widespread and vigorous opposition to Gove’s new curriculum. A group of Britain’s leading Historians and academics wrote an open letter to the Observer stating their opposition to the new curriculum and outlining their concerns. I have developed these below.
It’s All About Posh, White Blokes…In Britain
The Programmes of Study are far too narrowly and exclusively focused on British history to serve the needs of children growing up in the world today. This world is multi cultural, inter dependent and globalised. A common understanding of politics, culture and history broader than our shores is absolutely vital. As Professor Peter Mandler, president of the Royal Historical Society puts it in his criticism that Gove’s plans take us back to the fifties:
“If we are talking about cultural literacy, let’s ask what an appropriate cultural literacy is for the 21st century. I would say it is not the same as the knowledge you needed to pass O-levels in 1956.”
Women also seldom appear in Gove’s new curriculum and when they do it is mostly as the wives or daughters of ‘Great Men’. Writing in the Telegraph, Cathy Newman states:
“If the only women in history they (young women) learn about at school are Queen Victoria and Queen … they’re left with the impression that men do the brains and brawn and, unless you’re born into wealth and power, women don’t get a look-in.”
All Fur Coat and No Knickers
Secondly, they challenged the teaching of political history, without the teaching of histories, economies, societies, ideas and cultures. In short, the former minus the latter fails to contextualise its teaching. Gove’s plans explicitly set out to put emphasis on facts and dates over understanding. Surely it cannot be more important that a child be able to recite the dates of significant battles of World War II, than understand how and why a nation produced a conquering dictator and a holocaust.
Understanding Chronology is Required, Teaching Chronologically Is Ridiculous
The current curriculum places great importance on students understanding the chronology of historical events, forming associations between events and periods and understanding the broader sweep of history at home and across the globe. However, this is not enough for Mr Gove. He would like history taught chronologically, starting with Stone Age Britain at age six (p. 168) and ending with the Cold War and the Fall of the Berlin Wall at sixteen (p. 173).
This means students will only explore exciting periods of pre modern history at the earliest stages of their school life and therefore necessarily not be able to explore it with the same intrigue and ability they might at later stages.
The current plans would mean students learning about Renaissance England at 8 years old and never coming across it again for the rest of their primary or secondary education.
In essence, all could be forgotten by the time University applications are considered and a generation of archaeologists, pre modern and early historians lost out upon.
Furthermore, there remains a question of the age appropriateness of this curriculum. Surely asking a seven year old to grasp the finer points of the Anglo Saxon Heptarchy (I kid you not! p. 167) is a bridge too far? While I’m at it, I might attempt a debate on Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ with my cat.
Drafted by Faceless Bureaucrats in Ivory Towers
The Historians go on to challenge the government’s choice to draft the new curriculum inside the Department of Education, without systematic and genuine consultation with historians, teachers or the public. Further investigation bears this out. Gove made a big song and dance about inviting in the likes of Stephen Mastin and Simon Schama (cough) to support development of his new, exciting and (buzz word warning) ‘rigorous’ curriculum. Instead, after a specious and disorganised ‘consultation’, Mastin reports:
“Between January and the publication of this document – which no one involved in the consultation had seen – someone has typed it up and I have no idea who that is…There is no world history in there at all except when Britain bumps into these places.”
The open letter reports that even the Thatcher government of the 80’s created a working group with such groups and drafted the curriculum together amid a wide public discussion. In this regard, the Coalition Government is proving itself more bellicose and out of touch than the Thatcher government, at its height.
A recent online poll by the Historical Association found 81% of respondents disagreed with the aims of the new curriculum, 92% felt the content was too heavy, 98% felt the balance across key stages was wrong, and 93% felt the balance between local, national and international history was wrong.
Up With This We Will Not Put
This is just the tip of the iceberg of Gove’s transformation of our education system into a semi-privatised, regimental system where students are taught my rote. In Gove World, intelligence is assessed by one’s ability to regurgitate data, rather than assimilate and communicate information. In fact, considering the panorama of this government’s policies, perhaps the reason for a 1950’s education is to leave British children with 1950’s aspirations. We need to be teaching our children to live in the world of tomorrow, and Gove is demanding they be taught for the world of yesterday. Education at its best needs to be a progressive, innovative, inspiring area, conjuring and utilising new ideas and knitting the world together classroom by classroom. Of all the failings of our current education system, not one of them is addressed by Gove’s plans. In fact, they swing the agenda in the opposite direction and set British school children swimming salmon-like against the tide of progress.
How absurd it would be if Gove dictated we only learn ‘British’ Maths, Geography or Science? Yet this is exactly his plan for History. It is for us all: teachers, parents, children, concerned citizens, to signal a clear, resounding ‘Up with this we will not put!’ to Gove and his Little Britain scheme.
The consultation document is out. It is your duty to respond. While we can argue the government will ignore us anyway, better they ignore us while we shout at the top of our lungs, than never need to ignore us because we never open our mouths. Let them shout you down, but for goodness sakes don’t let them silence you.
Curriculum – take a look at the plans for yourself.
Consultation Document – have your say.
You can also follow @GoveWatch to keep up to date on the ill and hastily concieved policy of Gove on our education system, and share, share, share!