Michael Gove has recently updated the school curriculum. There is much in there to disagree with but it is the slimming down of the history curriculum with which I take particular issue.
Do not be decieved by phrases such as “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history” or “understand historical concepts” etc.. It is clear from the content of the syllabus that Messers Gove and Ferguson, who has been a vocal supporter of the new curriculum, favour a top down, phallocentric, anglocentric approach to the subject. From now on history will be stripped back to the names and dates of wealthy white english men. Other countries will get a look in on the occasions that it cannot be helped, with a particular emphasis on wars and empire. Ferguson has taken great pains to point out that Mary Seacole and Equiano Olaudah make the cut in the new history curriculum – are some of his best friends black too? Despite this tokenism, the new curriculum gives no depth, no context and no excitement to history.
Not only does Gove’s curriculum strip Martin Luther King Jr from the history books he also wishes to change the way it is taught. Rudge’s flippant response from History Boys; “…history? It’s is just one fucking thing after another” will become all too accurate. Source analysis, themes and topics will become a thing of the past as they are replaced by mechanical knowledge and chronology. It seems to leave no room for that fundamental aspect of history: context. World War One 1914 – 1918 and World War Two 1940 – 1945 tells us nothing about the way these events are related and the integral part the unsatisfactory outcome of the former played in the causes of latter. There is also no escaping the fact that rote learning is dull. History ought to allow children to think critically and creatively, to analyse and question information, and to construct and think through arguments. All Gove’s history will allow for is spitting out patriotically important dates and parroting recieved wisdom. How can Gove expect anyone, let alone teenagers, to get excited about a subject where the learning is entirely passive, no questions allowed?
In my first year of secondary school my favourite history projects were putting Henry II on trial for the murder of Thomas Becket and writing a newspaper article from the time of the black death. Both adequately fulfil Gove’s desire for children to learn more about British history but have no truck with rote learning or time lines. As I got older, my favourite history topics included the cold war and the french revolution neither of which get much of a look in in the new curriculum. In secondary school, I learned to love the subject so much I went on to study History at university where Mr Gove’s curriculum would have left me woefully underprepared for the rigours of the subject at degree level. I may have gone armed with patriotic fervour and the dates of the civil war, but what research and analytical skills I had would have been stunted and shrivelled. That is, of course, assuming I had even managed to learn to love it at all or seen beyond the rote learning and british focus to the true scope of History.
The new curriculum will likely see children turning away in their droves and I wouldn’t even blame them. Beyond the educational issues, this approach is indicative of the thinly veiled contempt that the Conservatives have for Europe and the wider world. As much as Michael Gove and his fellows may wish it were otherwise, Britain is now inextricably linked in to a global world which Britain cannot hope to stand apart from. More than ever we need to resist the urge to retreat into a jingoistic, little Englander view of the world otherwise it is not only the next generation of historians who will be doomed.
- ‘Old school and old-fashioned’: historians turn their fire on Gove (guardian.co.uk)
- Niall Ferguson: On the teaching of history, Michael Gove is right (schoolsimprovement.net)