20 August 2011

Saints and Sinners, Warts and All...

Given Michael Gove's habit of enthusing about a new idea every ten minutes or so, and equipped as he is with the most protuberant of eyes, I often think he'd do well in a tweed suit and goggles, driving a motor car, shouting 'poop poop!', and telling all and sundry of his magnificent plans. It's not that he's a fool -- far from it -- but that I think he'd be better off having fewer ideas and thinking them through properly.

I was reminded that the other day, with the Guardian reporting on how the University of Edinburgh's Tom Devine is deeply opposed to the Secretary for Educations plans to remodel how history is taught in British schools, or English ones at any rate:
'I am root-and-branch opposed to Gove's approach. It smells of whiggery; of history as chauvinism. You cannot pick out aspects of the past that may be pleasing to people.'
Somehow I'd missed this story when it first reared its propagandist head last autumn. Here's Gove in Parliament back in November:
'The changes we are making to the national curriculum and to accountability, through the English baccalaureate, will ensure that history is taught as a proper subject, so that we can celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world, from the role of the Royal Navy in putting down the slave trade, to the way in which, since 1688, this nation has been a beacon for liberty that others have sought to emulate. We will also ensure that it is taught in a way in which we can all take pride.'
Now, if this honestly reflects what Michael Gove thinks history is for, and what it's about, and indeed what he thinks British history really consists of, then he should be kept a long way away from the history curriculum. While schools-level history shouldn't be an exercise in national self-flagellation, neither should it be a glorification of the march of history or a celebration of how wonderful our respective countries are. Despite Niall Ferguson's moneyspinning screeds, history isn't about propaganda. It's not about cherry-picking the bits you like, so that you can celebrate the good things your country has done. 

It's messier than that. Hell, life is messier than that.

Paying for Patriotism
Chesterton wrote a wonderful short essay once upon a time called 'Paying for Patriotism'; I first read it in the posthumous collection The Common Man. It's very short and well worth quoting in full:
'Somebody was recently remonstrating with me in connection with certain remarks that I have made touching the history of English misgovernment in Ireland. The criticism, like many others, was to the effect that these are only old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago; that the present generation is not responsible for them; that there is, as the critic said, no way in which he or I could have assisted or prevented them; that if anyone was to blame, he had gone to his account; and we are not to blame at all. There was mingled with his protest, I think, a certain suggestion that an Englishman is lacking in patriotism when he resurrects such corpses in order to connect them with crime.

Now the queer thing is this: that I think it is I who am standing up for the principle of patriotism; and I think it is he who is denying it. As a matter of fact, I am one of the few people left, of my own sort and calling, who do still believe in patriotism; just as I am among the few who do still believe in democracy. Both these ideas, were exaggerated extravagantly and, what is worse, erroneously, or entirely in the wrong way, during the nineteenth century; but the reaction against them today is very strong, especially among the intellectuals. But I do believe that patriotism rests on a psychological truth; a social sympathy with those of our own sort, whereby we see our own potential acts in them; and understand their history from within. But if there truly be such a thing as a nation, that truth is a two-edged sword, and we must let it out both ways.

Therefore I answer my critic thus. It is quite true that it was not I, G. K. Chesterton, who pulled the beard of an Irish chieftain by way of social introduction; it was John Plantagenet, afterwards King John; and I was not present. It was not I, but a much more distinguished literary gent, named Edmund Spenser, who concluded on the whole that the Irish had better be exterminated like vipers; nor did he even ask my advice on so vital a point. I never stuck a pike through an Irish lady for fun, after the siege of Drogheda, as did the God-fearing Puritan soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. Nobody can find anything in my handwriting that contributes to the original drafting of the Penal Laws; and it is a complete mistake to suppose that I was called to the Privy Council when it decided upon the treacherous breaking of the Treaty of Limerick. I never put a pitchcap on an Irish rebel in my life; and there was not a single one of the thousand floggings of '98 which I inflicted or even ordered. If that is what is meant, it is not very difficult to see that it is quite true.

But it is equally true that I did not ride with Chaucer to Canterbury, and give him a few intelligent hints for the best passages in The Canterbury Tales. It is equally true that there was a large and lamentable gap in the company seated at the Mermaid; that scarcely a word of Shakespeare's most poetical passages was actually contributed by me; that I did not whisper to him the word "incarnadine" when he was hesitating after "multitudinous seas"; that I entirely missed the opportunity of suggesting that Hamlet would be effectively ended by the stormy entrance of Fortinbras. Nay, aged and infirm as I am, it were vain for me to pretend that I lost a leg at the Battle of Trafalgar, or that I am old enough to have seen (as I should like to have seen), ablaze with stars upon the deck of death, the frail figure and the elvish face of the noblest sailor of history.

Yet I propose to go on being proud of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Nelson; to feel that the poets did indeed love the language that I love and that the sailor felt something of what we also feel for the sea. But if we accept this mystical corporate being, this larger self, we must accept it for good and ill. If we boast of our best, we must repent of our worst. Otherwise patriotism will be a very poor thing indeed. '
This, I think, is a very sensible attitude. We cannot take pride in the heroic deeds of our ancestors unless we also feel shame in their villainous ones. True patriotism -- and true history -- must paint our portraits as we are and as we have been warts and all.

1688 and Slavery... seen with both eyes
Putting that another way, I think British schoolchildren should indeed learn the role Britain played in suppressing the Atlantic slave trade; they should also learn how Britain first became rich through that selfsame slave trade, and at a cost of so much African life and liberty. 

Likewise, they should indeed learn about the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, but what they should learn shouldn't be limited to how the 1689 Bill of Rights played so important a role in underpinning the American colonists' shirking off of their British yoke. They should learn too of how the Revolution was a deliberate attempt by Parliament to block religious liberty and to shore up a uniformly Protestant state; further they should learn that the Glorious Revolution marked the last time Britain was successfully invaded by a foreign army.

And yes, it was. The Dutch forces outnumbered those of the Crown, and the Dutch viewed the invasion of Britain and the usurpation of the English and Scottish crowns as a way of precluding an Anglo-French alliance against them. It means nothing that Parliament invited them in; it's regularly been the case that invasions occur because some in a country tell foreigners that their support would be appreciated, and given how few people had elected that parliament, I don't really think it's tenable to claim that it had any democratic legitimacy. Oligarchic legitimacy, maybe.

In short, if Gove's willing to have British history taught in a warts and all way, then that'll be great. But if he wants to airbrush it, well, I really hope this idea gets packed away back into Michael Gove's Big Box of Whims.


The Raven (C. Corax) said...

I've heard Gove on this topic before and he made two points that resonate with me:

(1) that children are not given a narrative overview of history - instead certain periods are taught to them in isolation (in my day we ended up being taught the industrial revolution about five times, I'm told it's even worse now, with the kids being taught the triangle trade, industrial revolution and world war 2 every year to the exclusion of all other subjects);

(2) the tuition focuses almost exclusively on the darker sides of our history (admittedly, there are rather a lot of dark sides to our history) and there are one or two important, valuable things that were done in our history that are worth acknowledging.

The problem with this sort of teaching is that it doesn't really engage their interest and leaves them floundering when trying to put historical events into their proper context.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Well, yes, I certainly think a clear framework in necessary, as I think the choosing of disconnected historical pockets is unwise. As an example, my niece has been studying the Crusades and Mussolini. While these are both enormously important, I'm not sure of the wisdom in learning of them devoid of their broader context.

For contrast, in Ireland, primary school history tended to be, at least from age nine or so, a more or less straight narrative of Irish history. In junior cycle of secondary school we'd spend two hours a week working through a broad overview of the whole Renaissance-Reformation period, which with reference to Ireland and Britain took in the Tudors and Stewarts, and would also cover the Industrial Revolution, British and Irish history from 1830 or so until about 1970, and European history from 1848 to 1970. That would all be compulsory.

For those of us who did it in the senior cycle of secondary school -- A-Levels, basically -- we'd cover Irish and European History from, more or less, 1865 to 1970, as well as doing our own specialist topic.

The approach may have been a bit old fashioned, but it gave a real sense of a story, and by revisiting the same topics as we got older, we got a feeling for how much more there always was to learn, so we had depth as well as breadth.

It was far from propagandist too; given that my school years coincided with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, we all had a tendency to view irregular warfare and independence struggles with eyes that were, if not jaundiced, at least cold.

That's one thing that worries me about the paedagogical focus on the Second World War. WW2 was a weird war, in that if we gloss over the fact of Stalin being pretty much as bad as Hitler, it looks like an unambiguously good war. There's a clear moral cause there. Things are hardly ever so clear cut. I often think that if children must be taught about war, then WW1 is in many ways far more typical. I should come back to this as a post...