The History Wars (UK Edition)

14 07 2013

Sir Richard J. Evans, the distinguished Oxford historian, has published a great op-ed in The Guardian about the controversy over Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans for a re-write of the history curriculum used in schools in England. Shortly after coming into office, Gove complained that the curriculum wasn’t patriotic enough. In 2012, he announced plans for a new history curriculum that would be both more intellectual rigorous (i.e., more memorization of dates) and more patriotic. The 2012 draft curriculum was criticized by teachers, who said that it was too ambitious given the limited amount of time schools devote to history. They wondered how children were going to master all of this material when they are simultaneously being asked to do more in other subjects. For instance, Gove has announced that children will now have to know their twelve times tables instead of just their ten times tables. The curriculum was also condemned by most academic historians, who objected to its attempt to promote a right-wing variant of British patriotism.

Michael Gove

Evans informs us that Gove has listened to these critics and has dramatically changed the proposed curriculum. Children, especially the very young ones, will be expected to learn fewer dates than Gove originally envisioned. Moreover, as Evans writes, “the new curriculum has abandoned Gove’s original intention of using history teaching in our schools to impart a patriotic sense of national identity through the uncritical hero-worship of great men and women from the British past. Gone is the triumphalist celebration of victories such as the Spanish Armada or the Battle of Waterloo.”

“Scotland Forever!” Scots Cavalry Charge at the Battle of Waterloo

Evans is pleased that the proposed curriculum is moving in the right direction, yet he thinks there is still room for improvement. The text of the draft curriculum leads Evans to fear that children studying medieval British history will really end up studying the history of medieval England only. More importantly, while the draft curriculum wants to place British history in its global context, which is good, minimal coverage will be given to European history. Students may end up learning about the English Reformation without hearing much about Luther. That’s obviously a problem on a purely academic level. Moreover, Evans fears that the decision to minimize the material about continental Europe will reinforce the hostility of many Britons to the European Union.

Evans also has interesting things to say about multiculturalism, the controversy over the government’s plan to commemorate the First World War,  and the refashioning of the British national identity in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics. His piece should be read anyone who cares about the role of history in a liberal democracy, even if they don’t live in Britain. 

As someone who did a PhD thesis on a topic in nineteenth-century history, I note with sadness that much of the material that was dropped from Gove’s slimmed down history curriculum relates to the Victorian period. The draft curriculum published in 2012 would have asked students to learn about William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. They have been left on the cutting room floor, The Telegraph reports. Churchill and Henry VIII are still in, which will doubtless the accelerate the Tudorisation and Hitlerization of the knowledge base of British teenagers: history students in Britain arrive at university with a good knowledge of Henry VIII and Adolf Hitler and almost no familiarity with any other historical subjects. 

  

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