Thursday, 20 January 2011

Michael Gove's Version of History-"Our Island Story"

The poor state of history teaching in British schools has been a major concern of Michael Gove. The kind of complaint that the replacing of the teaching of battles and dates must consist only by simply getting pupils to think about how in must have felt to be an impoverished labourer displaced by eighteenth century enclosure acts.
With the coming of a "multicultural society", the old narrative certainties about Britain's world historical role, its Empire and Industry, its unique "island story" became seen as antiquated and failing to to take account of the real history of oppression and killing upon which imperial domination was founded.
In 2009, Michael Gove as then Shadow Education Secretary stated that it was time to get back to patriotic, inclusive, and integralist narratives, not least in the wake of terror attacks in 2005, the rise of Islamism and a number of sympathisers ( and leftist non-Muslims ) who clearly detested everything Britain was supposed to have stood for,
"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."

He won applause from the conference for attacking the body responsible for writing the curriculum - the QDCA - and its budget of £100 million a year.

"After hiring an army of consultants, squadrons of advisers and regiments of bureaucrats they still wrote a syllabus for the Second World War without any place for Winston Churchill. Never in the field of public expenditure has so much been spent by so many to distort World War Two."
Simon Jenkins wrote today in The Guardian this, a rebuttal of the call to make history conform to some simplistic national pageant of seamless Good,
Time and again the message echoes down what Gove quaintly calls "our island story". The British army fights best when Britain is threatened, and fights worst when ordered overseas on vanity ventures by politicians desperate to cover themselves in glory.
Given the frequency with which today's pro-war party refers to Hitler and appeasement, it would be useful if the nation stopped for a weekend and received a crash course in distinguishing the "necessary wars" of Elizabeth I, Pitt, Lloyd George and Churchill from the "wars of choice" of Edward III, Walpole, Palmerston and Blair.
David Cameron and his foreign secretary, William Hague, see no difference. That is why they are stuck in the deserts of Afghanistan, their ears blocked to history.
Interestingly, Gove's prescription omits the history of the British Empire, the most important reason why British civilisation and culture influenced the world.

The people who make up Britain - Celts, Anglo-Saxons.
The Roman Invasion
Dark Ages
Liberty and the Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort
War of the Roses
Tudor revival
Henry VIII
Elizabeth I
English Civil War
Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights of 1688
Union of Parliaments in 1707
The Growth of Liberty in the early 18th century
Beginnings of industrial revolution
Napoleonic Wars
The Struggle for the Vote in the 19th century, including Great Reform Act, Chartists
Queen Victoria and Great Victorian scientists such as Darwin and Faraday
Growth of the mass media and the mass franchise in the Edwardian Age
Great War
Great Depression of the 1930s
World War Two, including Churchill's role
New Elizabethan Age,
SSWindrush and the New Britain
Modern history to the present

History teaching needs to emphasise teaching on the British Empire far more, not least as Afghanistan can be seen as a war more in common with nineteenth century struggles over geopolitical hegemony in Asia between Russia and Britain and the Silk routes ( now the control of oil and gas pipelines ).

There is need to take history in schools beyond the celebratory banality of "our island story" as well as leaving the history of the British Empire to those who only seen it as "rapacious" and evil, as if empire were not, for good or ill, a recurrent feature of history.

History needs to be taught as something vital that can equip citizens to try to understand the world they live in beyond mere propaganda and reciting dates, as that is no more meaningful that rote learning football statistics and which team won the league in 1970.

The importance of teaching the history of the British Empire is that it made the world as it is today and often the decline of empires leads to even worse conflicts and ethnic hatreds, a lesson that would at least help young people to understand complexity.

This is not happening. Students concentrate too much on World War Two which means that every world event is looked at through this lens, as if the war in Iraq was "Fascism" or that the "resistance" is either nationalist, a bit like the French resistance ( which it was not ) or else "Islamofascist".

Ironically, public discussion about wars and conflicts tend to portray every one of them in binary terms. Gove would know as a member of the Henry Jackson Society, a fanatic neoconservative think tank that sees Anglo-US history as one inevitable and inexorable unfolding of liberty against existential enemies.

Alternatively, those disliking wars such as Iraq see them as 'racist imperialism' more akin to fascism as they have read their Pilger and would like to think the invasion of Iraq reflects the stalling of democracy in Britain as opposed to one of its consequences as it was about satisfying the oil needs of a consumer society.

The focus of history should downgrade World War Two somewhat which has become a kind of foundation myth for Britain as a power essentially bent on saving the world from "new Hitlers" and seen as being the "People's War". And everything since as a betrayal or enhancement.

Those who see post 1945 in social terms see the continued pretensions of Britain as a world power as a betrayal of the investment in peaceful alternatives to a world of war whilst others have seen Britain is a permanent state of decline and a betrayal of "our finest hour".

It is about time this narrative was changed and history taught differently, that there are not binary oppositions of Good vs Evil in the world and that power, greed, hypocrisy and stupidity are universal and apply as much to Britain as it does to other parts of the world and that Britain is important but not that much.

History lessons, instead of getting people to rote learn facts or else to be taught to daydream about how it must have felt to be like a fourteenth century peasant or industrial worker, should be posed with the kind of moral questions that are simple but induce thought and the average person often thinks about.

For example, are all wars about control of strategic resources and if so, then if the empire or power that controls them is a better alternative than the others contending for them, does that give any legitimacy to "liberal empires" ? Is "humanitarian intervention" ever justified ?

There are a number of British foreign policies that have been based on that since the end of the Cold War. From Kosovo to Iraq and they have a history going back into the nineteenth century when imperial rule was used to end inhuman practices. Did that outweigh the negative side ?

These are questions that need to be posed, not least in a Britain heading towards ethnic and religious sectarian divisions and polarisation between "Us" and "Them", as though only total cultural self repudiation or idiotic celebratory nationalism were the two options.

The worst thing is a refusal to look at history beyond fitting the facts to the prescriptions of ideological creeds. To refuse to even mention the centrality of the TAPI pipeline and the New Great Game for control of Asia as the reason why British troops are in Helmland.
It's guff to suggest Britain is only in Afghanistan for women's lib or selfless democracy promotion. To follow Gove's "neoconservative "prescriptions will lead young people to think the idea of 'Britain's seamless record of noble good intentions' is a load of codswallop and propaganda with legitimate reasons.

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