Not Saussure

January 28, 2007

History lessons?

Filed under: Education, England, history — notsaussure @ 5:09 pm

An interesting article (what else do we expect?) over at Westminster Wisdom, in which Gracchus considers concerns expressed by Matthew Sinclair over the government’s plans

to teach more British history to help pupils have a better understanding of their own identity and Britain’s religious, racial, social and political diversity.

Matthew Sinclair is concerned by the topics on which the proposed history syllabus is to concentrate; according to the Guardian,

Lessons on the Commonwealth and empire, the slave trade and conflicts such as those in Northern Ireland are to be made a keystone of revamped citizenship education. Other issues such as migration will be made central to the curriculum. Pupils will be expected to learn core “British” values such as tolerance, respect, freedom of speech and justice and learn of “the shared British heritage”. There will also be a drive to ensure that white working class pupils do not feel alienated by attention being paid to ethnic minority pupils.

Of this, he comments,

Combine a focus upon periods of ethnic strife with the perspective that these problems are caused by white, Anglo-Saxon, evil and you have a recipe for lessons about how we should accept immigrants because of how awfully we mistreated their ancestors. Instead of trying to teach British national identity they’re trying the old strategy of trying to guilt the white British population into playing nice; this is not a novel strategy and doesn’t have the most impressive record of success.

Gracchus disagrees; he argues that

one of the points about history is to understand that our society has been shaped by people who had very different attitudes to the world than we of the points about history is to understand that our society has been shaped by people who had very different attitudes to the world than we do

and, speaking particularly of one particularly important, complex, controversial and influential Englishman, Oliver Cromwell,

the interesting part is working out how a complicated human being who like most of us was a hero one day, a villain another and complicated all the rest of his days, saw the world, functioned within his world

Furthermore, Gracchus argues, the topic of national identity is a bit of red herring; as he says,

I feel no desire to massacre the Irish. But on the other hand neither can Cromwell’s tolerating the Jews have much to do with me- there is no sense in which Cromwell tolerated the Jews for my reasons for tolerating the Jews. What continuity is there in identity between me and Cromwell? We don’t share the same ideas, we don’t share the same picture of the world, we live in roughly a similar place that is all (unless that is you beleive in some mystical national unity of blood- an idea which is to quote Niels Bohr exceptionally uninteresting). There is no real unity between us- just as there is no real unity between me and King Alfred, Cnut, Elizabeth I or William Gladstone. All there is is the degree to which I can learn from them by appreciating their point of view, by entering into their picture of the world and studying their history but I could do that with anyone from Confucius to Cuitlahuac

and he goes on to argue that the teaching of history is important both because it teaches students

that the world looks different to different people, to teach them how to work out how to interpret somebody else’s vision of the world and to appreciate the human creation of politics in all its complexity.

and because

the skills a historian needs- to evaluate and to understand the words of people long dead and reconstitute a view out of textual fragments- are the same skills required by anyone attempting to understand a politician’s career from the fragments of television appearances and newspaper comments- even blog comments

I’m very much with Gracchus on this, though with a proviso. History, of course, isn’t just the exercise of the historian’s skills; these skills are exercised in studying the history of someone or something, and the history of the country in which you live is as good a topic as any.

Consequently, I think we have to address, if only to dismiss it, the topic of what’s taught about history, about how awfully (or awfully decently) we treated their ancestors (or they treated our ancestors, as the case may be), or, as is very frequently the case, particularly when you consider the history of the constituent nations of the British Isles, how badly some of your great-greats on one side of the family behaved towards some of your great-greats on another side, though not without some provocation.

Well, is that what history’s about? It’s certainly what some people in some parts of the world think it’s about; in his article, Matthew Sinclair deplores the general lack of knowledge of the Glorious Revolution, and suggests it would better to teach that than the background to the troubles in Northern Ireland. Which is all very well, except that the one part of the country where everyone has heard of the Glorious Revolution is, of course, Northern Ireland; indeed, some of us might think over there they have an unhealthy obsession with the topic.

I don’t mean to criticise his specific point; rather, I’d suggest that the whole idea of using history to teach ideas about identity and values is somewhat dubious. Over that side of St George’s Channel, history and identity are interwoven in ways that make one appreciate Stephen Daedalus’ observation, in Portrait of the Artist, that ‘history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ They probably feel much the same way in parts of the former Yugoslavia, particularly when people — both at home and abroad — try tell them — frequently for their different partisan purposes — that they’re in the grip of some ancestral, almost genetic, blood-feud defined by whose ancestors did what to whom rather than what one group of rogues is trying to induce them to do to the followers of another group of rogues.

As an account of how things have come to happen, national history is, of course, vital. The Guardian piece mentions migration as one of the topics this proposed history syllabus is to cover, which seems to me an excellent idea. Natural curiosity, if nothing else, should lead a child in a classroom in central London to wonder about why his parents, grandparents or whoever, and those of so many of his classmates, took it into their heads to move to London from the four corners of the globe, and it’ll be all to the good if he and his classmates — whatever their background — come away with a more accurate notion about why people come here than it’s to enjoy the benefits of the NHS.

But to turn this into some sort of lesson in tolerance — particularly if it’s that utterly patronising and insidious ‘tolerance’ that, in effect, says some people’s ancestors were exploited by the ancestors of some other people, so now, to make amends, the descendants of the exploiters have to ‘tolerate’ the descendants of the exploited, to expiate some sort of ancestral debt — thank you, but no. That’s both fatuous and insulting to all concerned.

I’m all in favour of teaching children how to behave to one another, of course, though I rather doubt the extent to which schools can do it directly (other than indirectly by throwing the children together and letting them learn the hard way about how to get on, complete with practical lessons about how unpleasant life can become when authority has to step in and make you behave. But the idea that this can be taught through the study of history — that history shows us something about what British people (as opposed to the holders of any other passport) are, or should be — seems utterly strange.

It’s turning history into myth, in the sense of tales that tell you who you are and how you should behave. It’s all very well, but it’s nothing to do with history as I understand it, and the same job could be done just as well by studying the Harry Potter books, which are full of sound moral and practical lessons about loyalty, courage, fairness, tolerance and what have you.

It also raises the possibility, to my mind horrendous, that it could become some sort of election issue. Matthew Sinclair concludes his piece by saying,

I expect it will take a Conservative government to recognise that it is a better knowledge of our achievements as well as our travails that can bind us together as a nation.

Quite possibly so, but can you imagine the idea of the content of the GCSE history syllabus becoming an election issue? Vote for us, and we’ll make sure this is given proper emphasis! No, vote for us, and we’ll give proper emphasis to that! It’s a horrible, and all too possible, prospect.

On a somewhat related topic, I was delighted to learn a few days ago from, that

The latest move in Gordon Brown’s “Britishness” initiative is that it should be compulsory for schools to teach “core British values alongside cultural diversity”. The problem is that this will only apply in England and as the BBC’s Daily Politics programme reported this morning [Jan 25th] – it will not apply in Scotland.For while the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, can lay down policy for schools in England, as he did today, his writ does not run north of the border. He has no say over Scotland’s schools and the only way that “Britishness” can be taught there is if a separate decision is made in Edinburgh.

Which, apparently, isn’t likely to happen.

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  1. Interesting point- I suppose I am more committed to the idea of teaching children how to teach themselves than in teaching them about their values. It strikes me that values really aren’t a historical question. I agree with you but I think that the familiarity allows you to appreciate the unfamiliarity- if you see what I mean. Interesting response I’ll have to think about this and might post a reply on my own blog.

    Comment by gracchi — January 29, 2007 @ 5:34 am

  2. I don’t think that values should be taught as part of history, either — the problem is the government (or at least Gordon Brown) doesn’t agree with either you or me, and thinks history should be used to teach ‘British values’ like tolerance.

    Well, I’m all in favour of tolerance, of course, though I don’t think it’s a uniquely British virtue, and historically it’s not one we’ve been particularly good at displaying. And while it’s frequently interesting — I often do it myself, to make a polemical point — to compare current worries about Islam in Britain with historical worries about Catholicism, I’m not sure how sensible a way that would be of teaching — for example — either the reign of Elizabeth I or the Glorious Revolution.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 29, 2007 @ 8:02 am

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