One Thing After Another

The speaking exam for my A Level French was traumatic. I’d wilfully chosen to debate the extension of the pre-charge detention terrorism suspects to 90 days: I was also studying Politics and have never been great at keeping my opinions to myself.

Clearly, I’d misled my teacher into thinking I would embrace a certain level of complexity. In the so-called ‘spontaneous discussion’ that followed, the only unexpected question was “Are you proud of Britain’s colonial past?”

Once I’d picked myself up from the floor, I cobbled something together about how the Industrial Revolution was good but slavery was bad, threw my tutor a pleading look and made a hasty exit. By the time I left, the main thought in my head was “The Industrial Revolution wasn’t all good…”

A recent all-party parliamentary report has made clear that an hour a week just isn’t enough to teach history, because it’s impossible to develop a sense of a coherent narrative. Chronology gets lost in the tendency to jump between periods, and we need to find a balance between that and analysis. So how do you do it?

It’s physically impossible to teach everything. You could devote all of those hours to one period, one monarch, one country, and barely scratch the surface. Teachers have dealt with these quandaries for years, and they’re even angrier than I am about the straitjacket the National Curriculum places on what bits you can teach.

Enter into this pit of despair our Messiah. Michael Gove, our esteemed education secretary, has ordered a review of the Curriculum and of course, in true middle-aged Conservative style, has begun waving his hands around and explaining that the country’s going to the dogs because the youth of today are ignorant of our nation’s great history.

At the Tory party conference in late 2010, he’d been in office for less than eight months when he told the party that “Children are given a mix of topics at primary, a cursory run through Henry VIII and Hitler at secondary and many give up the subject at 14, without knowing how the vivid episodes of our past become a connected narrative. Well, this trashing of our past has to stop”. The current approach to history lessons “denies children the opportunity to hear our island story”.

Let me introduce you to Our Island Story. It’s a history of England up to Queen Victoria, designed for children and published in 1905. Its author, Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, went on to produce Our Empire Story a few years later, and both are highly patriotic narratives with additional myths and Shakespeare (read the bit about Richard III if you can). If Horrible Histories call themselves “history with the nasty bits left in”, then this is “history with the nasty bits taken out, buried under the patio and the mess scrubbed away with a vat of Dettol”.

In a previous post I mentioned Simon Armitage’s concerns about a return to traditional methods of teaching poetry. He feared that forcing Tennyson down students’ throats was simply a way of imposing some form of “Britishness” – encouraging conformity to ideals set down by a dominant social group. Since that’s clearly true of this approach to History, I’m even more convinced he has a point. Strangely, I don’t think it’s intended to be insidious – it’s being proposed by people who are products of such a system and actually think it’s the right thing to do, which if anything makes it worse.

Benjamin Zephaniah has already warned that black children are losing interest in history lessons because they feel they’re only getting “half the story”, and I’m deeply suspicious of any attempt to offer a single, unified narrative of British or any other history.

Like literature, history is incomplete and if you think you understand it, you’re wrong. It isn’t, as someone once said, just one thing after another. It’s the study of human interaction, and humans are complicated. They’re various, dissonant and subjective, so it stands to reason that history, as it is both recorded and interpreted, is a giant mess of competing, contradictory, and individual narratives. History teaching will always lack a coherent narrative because there isn’t one. If you offer children ‘our island story’, you may as well just tell them we’re all cloned from Alfred the Great.

By all means, teach kids about Florence Nightingale. But don’t forget to mention that she turned down a talented young Jamaican nurse on the grounds of her race. As Salman Rushdie wrote: “See, here is Mary Seacole, who did as much in the Crimea as another magic-lamping lady, but, being dark, could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence’s candle.”

The thing that really strikes me, though, is what all of this says about attitudes towards the arts. At the very least, there is a sizeable section of society that still treats the arts as restraining forces. Poetry by rote, history by name and date; it’s the same principle of pumping pupils full of information in the hope of shaping them into a specific type of citizen.

But that’s not what they’re for. Arts are about thinking critically, analysing the information in front of you and forming your own opinions in the knowledge that you might not have all the answers. A so-called fact is a starting point, not an end in itself. But the arts offer the freedom to look beyond what’s in front of you, to find and hear the voices you’d otherwise miss. If anything, it should open up possibilities for the different types of citizen you could become.

The arts are subversive, and they scare governments shitless. That’s why they try to harness them for their own benefit before somebody else does. But using them to impose some defined sense of national identity – dictated from the top down rather than from the nation itself – betrays pupils, the nation and the arts themselves.

I’m not saying it’s perfect the way it is. Had I taken History at A Level, it would probably have been my degree, but I refused to study a syllabus that was two-thirds Nazi Germany. We need more variety, more freedom for teachers to cater to pupils’ interests and a shift in focus away from economic development to things like how people lived. But we can’t teach our island story unless we leave the nasty bits in.

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