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.