A History Lesson for Michael Gove
Beckett, Francis, New Statesman (1996)
In 1934, Stalin told Soviet historians to change the way they taught history in schools. He disapproved of their textbooks, which did not offer the triumphant cavalcade of national heroes he considered appropriate. In 2010, Vladimir Putin's government instructed academics to draw up a new textbook, playing down the crimes of Stalin and stressing the heroism of the Russian struggle against Hitler. In the 1990s, the Australian prime minister John Howard deplored the way Australians were taught the history of the Aboriginal people. Teachers were too negative about the white settlers, he said.
In November, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, told a conference of history teachers that they were feeding young people "thin gruel intellectually". He complained that the most-studied subjects at GCSE were Hitler and the American west (or "cowboys and Indians", as he put it scornfully) and far too few people studied English history. Children are being "deprived of the inheritance they are entitled to", he said. It is a delicious irony that Mr Gove was speaking at a conference to launch David Cannadine's book The Right Kind of History, from which the facts in my first paragraph were taken.
Gove is not a British equivalent of Stalin or Putin. (He is far subtler.) But he, like them, wants history teachers to inculcate a sense of national identity and he was heard mosdy in glum silence, because that is not what history teachers think they are there to do. They think, as Cannadine told the conference, that politicians should resist the temptation to tinker with the history curriculum.
Gove did not help his case by claiming that most first-year history undergraduates could not answer five simple questions about British history. Dr Marcus Collins of Loughborough University pointed out that the research on which Gove based the claim was about economics undergraduates. More seriously, the research - by Professor Derek Matthews of Cardiff University - led to a very different findings from those Gove found convenient.
Matthews found that more than half his sample could not, for example, name a single 19th-century prime minister, and drew the logical - but, from Gove's point of view, highly inconvenient-conclusion that schools are not encouraged or enabled to spend enough time teaching history.
Out of time
Matthews wrote: "Britain is out of step with virtually all other European countries in not making history compulsory up to the age of 16 (in some countries it is 18). When the National Curriculum was introduced in Britain in 1989, history was compulsory up to the age of 16, but since 1995 it can be dropped at 14. Even up to 14, history has apparently to fight for time on the curriculum; and schools seem to be able to get away with teaching history only one hour a week for two years, so that some children give up * the subject aged 13." He also criticised "project" teaching, but he added that if more time were given to the subject, a broad knowledge could be imparted.
I hat, and not some fault in thecurriculum, is why children get gobbets of uncontextualised information - "three weeks on the Black Death, three weeks on Hitler", as Cannadine put it. …