Rewriting history

According to the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, ‘one of the under-appreciated tragedies of our time has been the sundering of our society from its past’1. Unfortunately, he was not referring to the tendency for subjects like politics and economics to be taught in a manner completely torn from all historical context, but to the proposed government plans to overhaul the history curriculum in state schools.

To bestow a semblance of legitimacy on these plans (and in keeping with the former New Labour government’s media obsession), Gove has signed up celebrity historian Simon Schama as an advisor for the new curriculum. This duo are to imbue pupils with a new ‘narrative British history’, according to Gove. The question that most are asking is exactly what this narrative of history will involve.

Gove himself has given some hints as to what the shape of this policy will be, stating that he believes that “children are growing up ignorant of one of the most inspiring stories I know – the history of our United Kingdom”. While this naive view of Britain’s history is something we have come to expect from bourgeois politicians, such comments reveal something of the direction of travel of Gove’s proposals. The idea that the learning and teaching of history should not involve a ruthless, merciless struggle for truth, but should be subordinate to a ‘British’ narrative – behind which is the wilful political attempt to create a British identity.

While both Gove and Schama assert that this history will of course take into account international issues and relations, the problem is not that the new syllabus will ignore major events and periods of history – it is how it will frame them. Given the politics of this dubious duo, they are likely to produce a completely state-centric version of history, in which class antagonisms are downplayed and unity of classes behind the ‘British interest’ takes centre stage. At the very heart of this proposal is the desire to make school pupils proud of ‘their’ history and to ritually celebrate some imagined national identity.

Teaching such a narrative whiffs of propaganda and runs the risk of indoctrinating children into a sleepwalking patriotism. History is not simply about stating facts and presenting one-sided perspectives. It is about analysis and interpretation. At its heart it is a distinctly critical discipline. The idea of pursuing a history syllabus where the stated aim is to create a national identity flies in the face of the stated aims of historical enquiry, celebrity endorsements or not.

Marxists take the subject of history very seriously. The opening line of the Communist Manifesto, ‘the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles’ gives an idea of its importance, and it was this study which led Marx to the conclusion that the working class were the force which had to abolish capitalism. But it is only by becoming conscious of its historical role that the working class can achieve this. As such, we oppose the indoctrination of children into a rosy-tinted view of the past which actually does ‘sunder our society from its past’, in an attempt to eternalise existing social relations and embed the idea of a permanent march of progress.

For any notion of why the world is what it is today one must look at the past. Narratives and abstractions can be useful in making sense of seemingly disconnected events, and distinguishing between the necessary and the contingent – but only when they are based on empirical fact and have some correspondence with reality.

We cannot stand back while history becomes a plaything of politicians wishing to hark back to the days of empire and celebrate historical figures such as Nelson and Wellington. Such approaches feed into the notion that there have always been rulers and ruled, and that this will always be so. Teachers – and students – must do everything they can to resist such blatant imposition of ideology on young people. The truth always benefits the oppressed.

Liam Conway


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