Critics and Curricula

Note on the title: yes, “curricula” is the correct plural. Take it up with the OED.

You may remember that I dislike Michael Gove. Or rather, as much as he seems like a bullish, belligerent, profoundly arrogant piece of work who is naturally blind to the flaws in his education he seems so desperate to force onto others, I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice man when he’s at home with his wife. What I dislike is Michael Gove’s frenzied, evangelical attempt to force education back into the stuffy, restrictive and ideologically biased box in which it lived when he was at school.

I’ve written about Gove’s proposals for changes to the history curriculum before, so I don’t want to retread old ground. Having finally read the government’s draft proposals for the syllabus, though, I do think it has become even clearer just how misguided they are – and misguided is the word: institutional regression is being brought about by people who truly believe the system that moulded them “never did me any harm”.

It’s worth looking at some of the aims of the new history course.

Pupils should “know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world.”

Who, exactly, are “the British nation”? I’m intrigued by this mythical, unified people who have constantly strived together towards this grand nation-building goal. These islands are home to the descendants of whoever was lucky enough to survive the wars, rebellions, oppression and hardship that scarred our landscape – their numbers increased by generations of immigrants escaping their own wars, rebellions, oppression and hardship.

They have always spoken different languages, worshipped different gods or the same god in different ways, and the fact that they share the same patch of soil has forged them into something new. Even now, can we call that a single “British nation”? I don’t know. But I do hope it’s that very multiplicity that children will be brought up to celebrate, both at home and in school.

As for Britain’s influence on the world, well, there’s a whole other post about how to deal with that, but suffice to say that the nasty, rotten underbelly of our island story can be easily ignored if you drown it out with Gladstone’s greatest hits.

“Know and understand British history as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the story of the first settlers in these islands to the development of the institutions which govern our lives today.”

Chronology: yes. It’s very helpful to know roughly what order things came in. But that’s largely because it throws into sharp relief just how incoherent is this so-called ‘grand narrative’ of British history. People don’t make sense, nor do they follow logical patterns, and as a result neither does the study of how people lived in the past.

It’s a raft of conflicting and contradictory narratives, incomplete and uncertain; singling out one voice at the expense of millions of others will always be reductive and simplistic. Choosing a single narrative of ‘British history’ to entrench in the minds of a generation, moreover, leaves you ever so slightly open to accusations of ideological bias.

If you want kids to have a grip on the chronology of events in the past, give them a timeline. Then you essentially teach them a little bit of everything across different years, with teachers and pupils aware that they’re seeing a very narrow snapshot of any one point in time. The teacher should have a broad outline of what they want to teach, but then listen to where pupils’ interests lie and consider how they can tailor lessons to focus on those aspects.

For example: “alright, here are some of the interesting things that happened in the seventeenth century and some of the important things that came out of it. What do you want to focus on?” This should be continually reassessed to make sure the students are as engaged as possible. If they refuse to engage in lessons staff get to teach whatever they want until they find a foothold.

And then you make links. You explain that something was made possible by something else that happened before it, and that something similar was happening in France at the same time, and that the outcome was this which paved the way for something else so some people will have seen it differently. Find an ‘in’ among children’s interests, and the rest will follow. But don’t start by telling them they’ll be spending ten years following a single, very long story.

“Know and understand the broad outlines of… the achievements and follies of mankind.”

Who gets to decide what constitutes a “folly”?

Did Oliver Cromwell and his cronies overthrow a tyrant and pave the way for constitutional rule in the first true democracy England had known? Or did they murder the father of seven exiled children while plunging their country into a decade of new oppression, paving the way for the restoration of the monarchy by behaving as badly as their predecessor?

It’s not necessarily the content I object to on this point as the prevailing attitude behind it. The government has basically appointed itself the arbiter of all value in human behaviour, and it’s going to make your children think the same way. Forgive me if I’m not comfortable with that, least of all with the government in question.

There are questions of age-appropriacy to answer, of course. Will year 3 or 4 children really be up for the adventures of Athelstan? Will middle-aged accountants get by in a pub quiz on the Stone Age knowledge they acquired aged 6? I’m not convinced of either. But the thing that really worries me is the intellectual authoritarianism that comes through here more clearly than ever.

Education is intrinsically authoritarian. It depends on the fact that somebody who knows more than you will teach you things that they or somebody else deem useful if you’re willing to give them your attention. But it’s worth thinking carefully about who enjoys that privilege. Gove hasn’t earned it yet.

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3 thoughts on “Critics and Curricula

  1. […] You probably weren’t reading this blog while Gove was education secretary, but I wrote a lot of words on him and his godawful curriculum reforms. (I recommend giving them a read actually – most of them are better than this.) Through months and months of his top-down redesign, I argued that he understands and instinctively distrusts the power of the arts and humanities in particular to shape views and attitudes. He sought to harness this for himself to create good little citizens, imposing a sanitised narrative of a unified British nation which breeds “proper” patriots. […]

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