Who owns Pythagoras?

Or photosynthesis? Or 9 x 7 = 63?

Daft, isn’t it?

Then we hit upon this, from Stephanie McCurry, in this week’s Times Literary Supplement:

It has become increasingly difficult to say anything new about the American Civil War or even just to tell a different tale … [with] … a marketplace with seemingly inexhaustible demand for another version of the familiar story and the understandable desire of experts to shape public history.

As a well-bred Belfast girl, Professor McCurry will know all about the problem of who owns history. And that ‘history’ is not just a recital of Great Dead White Men.

The lustre of lucre

Note, though, she also brings in the commercial aspect: the gurus who have cornered the media market in their particular expertise. Tudors without Starkey? Unthinkable! The last word on Hitler? Well, Kershaw must be into the quarter-finals!

A couple of weeks on from the Old Vic production, Malcolm’s mental sound-track goes on full volume:

From Ohio, Mister Thorn
Calls me up from night till morn:
Mister Thorn once cornered corn and that ain’t hay!
But I’m always true to you,
Darlin’, in my fashion —
Yes, I’m always true to you,
Darlin’, in my way!

Read between Cole Porter’s lines, and Lois would do anything for her Great White Men.

More hay

So, this afternoon, there was Malcolm at the old-reliable London Pride in the Famous Royal Oak (well, it’s famed within a quarter-mile of Muswell Hill’s St James’s Lane). He has Professor McCurry flitting about his consciousness when he reaches the Comment & Debate page of the Guardian, and another contender for Ms Lane’s transient affections:

Harvardian Ferguson
Says I’m really quite très bonne:
If that’s the Harvard ton, and he’s really on … Okay!

… well, mainly on his own status and importance. As here:

It’s the way history has been taught in British schools ever since the advent of the schools history project in the 1970s and the rejection of historical knowledge in favour of “source analysis” and “child-centered” learning (“Imagine you are a Roman centurion …”).

Only someone living in a dreaming Oxonian spire could be unaware of how badly this has turned out, despite the best efforts of thousands of hard-working teachers. I know because I have watched three of my children go through the English system, because I have regularly visited schools and talked to history teachers, and because (unlike Evans and Priestland, authors of rather dry works on, respectively, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia) I have written and presented popular history. 

The new national curriculum is not flawless, to be sure. It runs counter to the advice I gave Gove by being much too prescriptive. The 34 topics to be covered by pupils between the ages of seven and 14 already read a bit like chapter titles and, if there is one thing I hope we avoid, it is an official history textbook (even if it’s written by Simon Schama).

Nothing like putting the boot (alongside a personal puff) in, Niall!

The rest of the piece has at least three other conditional clauses (if … if … If), four rhetorical questions, and rather more subjective first person singulars than is truly tasteful.

Yet, Ferguson has a point

It isn’t that history doesn’t sell. As Prof Steph (see above) opened that TES review:

Last December, thousands of Americans filed into cinemas to watch Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. While Congress was stuck in its usual deadlock, a disgusted public was momentarily delivered by the large-screen image of a heroic figure and a heroic America. As the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed and slavery abolished, people cried. They applauded.

Meanwhile, as both main UK channels (and many others) exploit shamelessly, costume drama and a bit of pseudo-history writ small (Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife) put bums on family sofas. Rescuing ‘Richard III’ (perhaps) from under the Nissans and Fords of the Leicester car-park played a PR blinder.

So a kind of “history” excites, enthuses, entertains. What is ‘taught’ in school fails miserably by comparison.

But what should it be? Let’s try and decode Ferguson:

If you want to understand what’s really wrong with history in English schools, read schoolteacher Matthew Hunter’s excellent essay in the latest issue of Standpoint. As Hunter rightly says, it’s not just the defective content of the old national curriculum that is the problem. It’s the way history has been taught in British schools ever since the advent of the schools history project in the 1970s and the rejection of historical knowledge in favour of “source analysis” and “child-centered” learning (“Imagine you are a Roman centurion …”).

and (this is the on-line version, [not all of which made it into print]):

Among other things, the national curriculum explicitly aims to ensure that all pupils “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires”; that they “understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance”; and that they “understand how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims”.

[At key stage 1, children will be introduced to “basic concepts” such as nation, civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace. At key stage 2, they will study the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome.] As for “the essential chronology of Britain’s history”, to which Evans and Priestland object so strongly, it is a model of political correctness: not only Mary Seacole makes the cut, but also Olaudah Equiano – hardly escapees from Our Island Story.

What is missing there is: who owns history?

For those “basic concepts” are intensely and inescapably partial and ideological. Try a couple of thought experiments:

  • Reconcile Cromwellian England into an approved primary-school perception of monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace.
  • And how does the average eight- or ten-year-old meaningfully study the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome? In the Goveian world-scheme, were Greece and Rome essentially slave-societies, or is the slavery thing a mere incidental to the cultural glories?

Docking churchWhat sticks in Malcolm’s craw is, about the only time Roman slavery cropped up at Wells County Primary School, it involved Pope Gregory I and his Non Angli, sed angeli. Which may feature as every-window-tells-a-story in St Mary, Docking, as elsewhere, but as far as a critical observer can determine is as verifiable as Star Trek.  And, no, it’s not in Bede.

Two remaining issues

They’re in Ferguson, and implicit in the more cerebral McCurry:

  • What is the authentic ‘scheme’ (which is what — in any sense of the word — a syllabus amounts to) for that overview of English and European history? Is it Anglocentric or Eurocentric? At the age of fifteen Malcolm switched from GCE “English and European history” to Irish Leaving Certificate “History”; and it was a painful re-appraisal, indeed.
  • What is Ferguson’s gold standard of ‘historical knowledge’? Can he kindly provide, as a solid example, one single, absolute, indisputable, uncoloured ‘fact’? For, were he to do so, a whole phalanx of equally-eminent ‘historians’ would happily exhibit how that ‘fact’ could be, and has been ‘spun’. As Malcolm’s pert Young Piece never fails to repeat, a historical ‘fact’ is one which has been cited by a quantum (say, four) of historians. And a ‘historian’ is … precisely how qualified?

End piece

Consider, then, how Stephanie McCurry, in her shrewd Ulster way, presents ‘values’  rather than certainties, a basis of ‘interpretation’ rather than Ferguson’s ‘facts’, humanely and self-effacingly, warning but with a populist touch, and so concludes her extended review:

Civil War history is a growth industry. For authors, the opportunities are great, but so are the temptations — to repetition, over-reaching and jockeying for market share. There are valuable new interpretations emerging from the field, including a focus on the Civil War as a humanitarian crisis, and there are important voices cautioning against an embrace of war stories as the romanticisation of war itself. But in the fever of sesquicentennial commemoration nothing sells quite like President Lincoln and the war for emancipation. It makes the fantasy of Django Unchained to make the public focus even for a minute on the other America, the one that for so long had no problem with holding people as slaves.

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Filed under Comment is Free, education, Guardian, History, Ian Kershaw, Michael Gove, Niall Ferguson, Norfolk, Times Literary Supplement

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