Gove does a deal with Ferguson (Niall, not Sarah)

Michael Gove’s first foray into the school curriculum has certainly raised a few eyebrows. His plans to ask historian Niall Ferguson (sorry, I mean, controversial historian, Niall Ferguson) to help re-design the history curriculum was an interesting start, if only for the apoplectic reaction amongst those who see Ferguson as a right-wing imperialist who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the tender brains of ten year-olds. You can see where they’re coming from.

Primary schools are currently in limbo in terms of their curriculum planning. Just before the election, the Labour Government was planning to introduce a new curriculum in primary schools based on Jim Rose’s review (although he wasn’t allowed to include testing and assessment – i.e. SATs – in his horizon-scanning, so it wasn’t a complete picture by any means). Aside from being forced to ignore the SATs-shaped elephant in the room, his review and his curriculum plans were widely supported: it certainly gave schools an idea of where to head but also allowed for as much local flexibility as teachers could reasonably want.

Slight problem: the Tories knocked the new curriculum on the head, so schools are currently waiting and watching to see which way Gove turns. His hints so far have been about complete freedom for schools (which is surely going too far – there must be some collective sense of what we want or need children to learn) or a strangulated half-free, half-prescribed curriculum which comes out something like ‘teach what you want, but you must say that Winston Churchill was a demi-God’.

So Ferguson’s involvement suggests there will, after all, be a central curriculum of some sort and, furthermore, the history element will be re-engineered to focus, according to Ferguson, on a “grand narrative” which can be summarised as “the rise of the West”. A leap to the right if ever there was one.

Ferguson’s pugnacious approach is of academic and popular interest, but I simply don’t buy the idea of history as ‘grand narrative’, let alone one that can be reduced to ‘the rise of the West’.

Yes, there are certain facts and events of history that can and should be taught. It may even be possible to devise some kind of narrative But that inevitably involves a narrowing-down. If the aim is an understanding of what has gone before, then facts and events and a ‘single narrative’ will only get you so far. Particularly one that is so obviously contentious as Ferguson’s.

What’s really enlightening – and what makes history so powerful – is that there are different ‘histories’ rather than one unifying ‘history’ or narrative. It is the rub between these different viewpoints that makes history interesting and an active, ‘live’ subject.

Whenever I’ve taught history the repetition of dates and events has one affect: it deadens brains and dulls eyes. What really captures children’s imagination is when they can pick apart an event and look at this from different points of view; they argue, present a case, use artefacts, discuss, change their minds and agree to disagree. Above all, they are thinking about history, not being given a script to learn.

History should not be about the simple transmission of one man’s interesting, yet highly partial views, but an awakening of interest in the sheer complexity of the past: an understanding that there is not one ‘grand narrative’, but many – and that is what makes the subject fascinating. Gove may have begun a flirtation with Ferguson, but he shouldn’t commit himself too soon: there’s plenty more historical fish in the sea.



Filed under Conservatives, Curriculum, Policy, Schools

7 responses to “Gove does a deal with Ferguson (Niall, not Sarah)

  1. JessRackham

    It is always refreshing to see the history curriculum injected with a bit of right-wing “nuttery” influenced by someone who is now the man trusted by the delightful Henry Kissinger to write his “warts-and-all biography” and a man reputed to be “nostalgic for empire.” One wonder who the darling Blues would have chosen had they not had to share a bed with the (liberal) sellout Clegg. I hope in addition to this Gove will increase the dates in history, making it a harder and less soft (exploratory) subject than it is fast becoming! What, only ten dates in this exam?! It’s basically art.
    (My GCSE exam is on Wednesday)

    • Interesting comment Jess – I didn’t know he was writing Kissinger’s biography! Maybe that will mean he doesn’t have time to re-write the history curriculum?

      Good luck with the exam – if you don’t know the answer, maybe just do a nice doodle….

  2. Very interesting post, but not sure what your solution is. Would you ask lots of historians to help? Would you still go for topics – Egyptians, Romans, Tudors? What’s best – as a teacher?

    • Hi Sarah – thanks for your comment. I think the solution has to be broader than one man – particularly if that man (Ferguson) is someone with such a pointed and partial view of human existence. I do, however, think Gove is right in his analysis that history (and geography) has become somewhat disconnected from what are perceived to be the core subjects, in primary schools at least. I think ‘topics’ or themes have to remain – it retains a sense of place and time which must be integral to history (I would have thought).

      My point is perhaps more about pedagogy than content. In teaching history, we should avoid the focus being skewed too far towards the easy certainties of dates and places and people, particularly if this is at the expense of the idea that history is something intrinsically contentious, to be discussed and debated (of course, you can go too far down this subjective route too – and end up with the holocaust deniers).

      So, I think we need a balance between the views of different historians in devising the curriculum, as well as a renewed focus on ‘how’ we teach history and not just the ‘what’.

      • Calum

        Bit of a pathetic and biased slating of Ferguson. Anyone who has read any of his recent books should know that one of his familiar themes is the decline of the west, the fall of the american empire, the warnings of the debt slavery of the ‘developed’ world to China etal.
        He is right wing, so what? He bases his arguements on economic history and as a former labour voter, I think I can recognise that he seems to be credited with a brilliant mind – he likes to be contoversial. Instead of bleating about him because he isn’t Lenin and claiming he is going to write the exam papers, why not address any of his points with reasoned arguement. The jokes about how easy History is in school just seem to confirm his views about ‘junk history’.

      • Thanks for the comment, but I think you’ve misread the blog and been too keen to pigeon-hole. Who’s ‘slating Ferguson?’ Not me. I agree that he is a brilliant mind and I’ve enjoyed his books. My point is that he has a particular view of history, which – as you recognise – is controversial. As such, I wouldn’t want his understanding of history to be ‘the’ view of history taught in schools.

        I didn’t mention Lenin, so not sure what point you are trying to make. Nor did I say that Ferguson was going to be writing exam papers – where did you get that from?

        I did address his arguments about a grand narrative – you may not agree with them, but that’s the nature of things (which is my point about history really).

  3. Calum

    Perhaps I am over-reacting to the Ferguson bashing, however, I would have thought someone of his stature, his pedigree, his insightfulness would be a boon to increase the popularity of the subject.
    Rather than his involvement being restrictive and narrowing opinion – he shakes things up and presents a contrarian view.
    I can’t see the editor and writer of alternative history, someone who challenges established cliched viewpoints seeking to impose any viewpoint so I think your fears aren’t valid and that we are all in agreement that it is the diversity of opinion that can make history interesting.
    As for the ‘eurocentric’ tag, it seems that his academic points gets tarred by his politican views. The dominance of the west was just an historical fact, as is its decline, which F has dated from 1900.
    I can easily sympathise with his compliant that school history seems like a random pic n mix, with an unhealthy obsession with Hitler. And on that topic, if we are all facinated with studying ww2 does that make us all nazis – obv. not so why should F’s keen interest in his specialist subject see him labeled as an ‘imperialist’? I can think of no better topic than the British Empire to encompass a plethora of topics: exploration, trade, politics, emigration, wars, technology, social issues, class, slavery, racism, religion etc etc. All F seems to be doing is suggesting a bit of needed overarching structure.
    Any modern popular work from Schama’s History of Britain series to Andrew Marr takes the same approach and why we aren’t taught more about our own past in such clear and entertaining prose as these three writers is a mystery.

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