Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Michael Gove and the Imperialists

The Tories want our children to be proud of Britain's imperial past. When right-wing colonial historian Niall Ferguson told the Hay Festival last weekend that he would like to revise the school history curriculum to include "the rise of western domination of the world" as the "big story" of the last 500 years, Education Secretary Michael Gove leapt to his feet to praise Ferguson's "exciting" ideas - and offer him the job.

Ferguson is a poster-boy for big stories about big empire, his books and broadcasting weaving Boys' Own-style tales about the British charging into the jungle and jolly well sorting out the natives. The Independent's Johann Hari, in his capacity as young bloodhound of the liberal left, sniffed out Ferguson's suspicious narrative of European cultural supremacy in a series of articles in 2006, calling him "a court historian for the imperial American hard right," as Harvard-based Ferguson believes that the success of the British Empire should be considered a model for US foreign policy.

This is exactly the sort of history that British conservatives think their children should be learning. "I am a great fan of Ferguson, and he is absolutely right," Michael Gove told the Guardian. The new Education Secretary has declared his intention to set out a 'traditionalist' curriculum 'celebrating' Britain's achievements. Andrew Roberts, another historian set to advise on the new curriculum, has dined with South African white supremacists, defended the Amritsar massacre and suggested that the Boers murdered in British concentration camps were killed by their own stupidity. It looks like this 'celebratory' curriculum might turn out to be a bunting-and-bigotry party, heavy on the jelly and propaganda.

What should shock about these appointments is not just the suspect opinions of Roberts and Ferguson, but the fact that the Tories have fundamentally misunderstood the entire purpose of history. History, properly taught, should lead young people to question and challenge their cultural inheritance rather than simply 'celebrating' it. "Studying the empire is important, because it is an international story, but we have to look at it from the perspective of those who were colonised as well as from the British perspective," said historian and political biographer Dr Anthony Seldon, who is also Master of Wellington College. "We live in an interconnected word, and to one has to balance learning about british history with learning about other cultures."

The ways in which schools and governments structure and promote stories about a country's past, the crimes they conceal and the truths they twist, have a lasting effect on young minds. It is not for nothing that the most fearsome dictators of the twentieth century, from Hitler to Chairman Mao, altered their school history curricula as a matter of national urgency. Even now, the school board of the state of Texas is re-writing the history syllabus to sanitise slavery and sideline major figures such as Thomas Jefferson, who called for separation of Church and State. That the Tories, too, wish to return us to a 'traditionalist' model of history teaching should thoroughly disabuse the Left of the notion that the Conservative party has no ideological agenda.[read the rest at New Statesman]

21 comments:

  1. This just goes to show why neither Left nor Right should centrally control the curriculum and it's one of the reasons why I favour giving schools as much autonomy as possible. Conservatives shouldn't have to put up with their children being force-fed liberalism and Liberals shouldn't have to put up with their children being force-fed conservatism.

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  2. But surely when our nation occupied and ruled over one quarter of the Earth's surface the Pax Britannica our armies imposed upon various indigenous native peoples wasn't really all that bad. We gave countries like India educational systems, railways, cricket, tea plantations etc., and rarely tried to interfere with or suppress religions or religious beliefs in the way that many Roman Catholic nations did in the third world and elsewhere.

    The age when Britannica ruled the waves SHOULD be celebrated in my honest opinion. In many ways it was our nation's golden age? We were a world power then; prosperous and splendid; since the Empire dissolved our history has been one of slow managed decline.

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  3. @ Anon: but what would guarantee that whoever ran the autonomous schools would be unbiased? But I agree that it is wrong for children to be force-fed opinions. Debate is to be encouraged, but brainwashing, whether in the form of collective worship or otherwise, should STOP.

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  4. I dunno, I think that the history of the British Empire as taught - when it is taught at all - is very one sided as it is.

    You can teach about Amritsar at the same time you teach about execution by elephant in the Mughal Empire, or the elimination of suttee, that sort of thing.

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  5. "We gave countries like India educational systems, railways, cricket, tea plantations... "

    Well, they already had educational systems and agriculture (albeit agriculture designed to feed the local population rather than make vast fortunes for people on the other side of the world), and I'm not convinced that giving people cricket is something to be proud of... But we also gave them syphilis, ethnic cleansing, and mass starvation of a like never seen before. In return, they gave "us" (by which I mean a tiny elite) fortunes beyond the dreams of avarice.

    "The age when Britannica ruled the waves SHOULD be celebrated in my honest opinion. In many ways it was our nation's golden age? We were a world power then; prosperous and splendid; "

    Yes, it's all about us, isn't it? Never mind that the "splendour" was built on the graves of tens of millions... I'm pretty sure that the Russians harking back to the glory days of the USSR feel much the same.

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  6. Hi Penny

    Perfectly respect your angle at this, but...

    1) Did you criticise Ken Livingstone for having 'dined' with Muslim extremists? (passe, I know)...

    2) How did he defend the Amritsar massacre? Have had a good look, and can't find this

    3) Again, where does he suggest that Boers were 'killed by their own stupididy'? (ironically perhaps the antecedents of the white supremacists he 'dined' with?)

    4) You state, 'History, properly taught, should lead young people to question and challenge their cultural inheritance rather than simply 'celebrating' it' - does this include the near-unanimous 'celebration' of the social, racial and cultural changes of the past 60 years?

    Sorry if this comes across as a troll, it really isn't meant like that. Would just be keen to hear your view.

    A lot of what you say makes a hell of a lot of sense - it's a shame that you sometimes come across as much of a 'stooge' of the outgoing administration as you criticise and dismiss the current one.

    :)

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  7. @ Victoria - regardless of the other things you mention, we definitely did NOT "give" cricket to India. As Ramachandra Guha explained in his book on the history of Indian cricket, the Indian cultures effectively prised it from the tight-fisted grasp of the colonial invaders. In fact, once it was clear that Indians were playing cricket, the colonial invaders rejected the sport largely, and turned to polo instead: a perfect way to ruin the fields where the Indians had been playing the sport!

    The idea that cricket was deliberately spread by white English folks as a civilising influence is a myth invented after the fact, when it became clear that they couldn't keep the Indians from playing - and getting good - at cricket.

    Far be it from me to suggest that a similar cultural myth might be at work with those other things you mentioned!

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  8. As ever Laurie, there is a lot in what you say with which I wholeheartedly agree - but a section (notably your conclusion on the New Statesman blog) with which I absolutely don't.

    Certainly, education is intended to help us question and challenge pretty much everything; absolutely, some broad brush approach whereby the British Empire is celebrated and its human consequences glossed over simply cannot stand. But on the NS, your argument leads you to the bizarre, overblown, borderline propagandist judgement that:

    "Michael Gove's wish to re-engineer how history is taught to children is, quite simply, about social control. It is part of a broader political discourse that seeks, ultimately, to replace the messy, multivalent web of Britain's cultural inheritance with one 'big story' about dominance and hierarchy, of white over black, West over East, rich over poor."

    This is simply wrong. On your part, it's something close to intellectually squalid, ludicrously over-simplistic "left = good; right = bad" tribalism and scaremongering. Do you honestly think life is ever that simple?

    Because here's the thing. When generations of people are taught to be ashamed of pretty much everything their country has ever done, what do you think happens? They end up cynical, unhappy, lacking a sense of identity and even a sense of home. Germany, for example, has done a sensational, magnificent job in changing itself and being relentlessly, brutally honest about the horrors of its past - yet what do many of its young people do, the talent they need to build the economy of the future? They leave: almost certainly because their emotional reason to hang around has been brainwashed out of them.

    The left's fear and hatred of anything approaching patriotism (not jingoism, or nationalism, or xenophobia - but simple patriotism) has always perplexed me. There is nothing wrong in feeling proud of one's country at all - because the need for a place called home is intrinsic to everyone. Denying it is not only to deny human nature, but worse, to eventually lead to a backlash - from people so sick of being told to be ashamed of everything that they end up becoming precisely the sort of unpleasant nationalists education is supposed to stop.

    Has any of this ever occurred to you? Do you ever stop to take pause before ploughing ahead with another ideologically driven rant? Where is your empathy, and awareness of other contexts? That's what your education should've given you, shouldn't it?

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  9. Penny, years ago I tuned in to watch Niall's series about the American empire. What I saw disappointed me no end. I remember thinking: 'Do I sit through the three eps, or do I just give it a miss and watch 'Sex and the City' instead?' After all at least with SJP and co. you know what you're getting.

    Niall is, to me, the kind of historian who's been very clever at marketing himself to the US audience as the quintessential Englishman without Hugh Grant's annoying stammer. In order to achieve that he has gone at great lenghts to carve out a narrative that pleases everyone because it's so bloody middle-of-the-road that you can't be offended, in fact you probably feel offended by yourself for being offended at Niall's words. But the undertone, as you rightly point out, is more damaging than 100 marches by the English Defence League. Oh, the empire was bloody awful! But hey, they gave India the railway. Oh, and those chaps in red coats were not as bad as the Spaniards, the French and the Portuguese! It's sad to say, however, that his pofile will grow bigger in years to come.

    Great post, as usual.

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  10. Re: Anonymous 3rd June, 23:29

    Many of the criticisms of Andrew Roberts used in Penny's post are explained in more detail in the piece by Johan Harri. It would have been nice of her to include a link :)

    http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-the-dark-side-of-andrew-roberts-1765229.html

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  11. John of London4 June 2010 at 14:52

    "Andrew Roberts, another historian set to advise on the new curriculum, has dined with South African white supremacists, defended the Amritsar massacre and suggested that the Boers murdered in British concentration camps were killed by their own stupidity."
    Well, one out of three ain't bad. Boers were not "murdered" and the concentration camps weren't what the word now means. Judging from what we know about White South African women in the late 20th century, it seems quite plausible that disease spread among the interned Boers because, deprived of their Black maids, Boer women wouldn't or couldn't keep their quarters clean. And you must know that Boer self-pity about their supposed sufferings was part of the ideology of Apartheid, just as German self-pity was part of the ideology of Nazism, and White Southern self-pity about Reconstruction in the USA was part of the ideology of White Supremacy there.
    "History, properly taught, should lead young people to question and challenge their cultural inheritance " I don't think history should be about cultural inheritance one way or the other. One purpose of history is to show how the world is run; episodes of British history such as the Enclosure Acts of the 18thC are excellent for that. And in a global context, the Opium War of the 1840s. Another is to explain how Britain came to be the way it is. For example, the Agrarian Revolution of the 18thC, and the fact that it didn't happen in continental Europe, explains the iniquity of the Common Agricultural Policy.

    Just as a matter of interest, Penny, do you know in which decade the majority of British men first got the vote? That sort of fact is fairly basic, and I don't see what it's got to do with "cultural heritage".

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  12. "History, properly taught, should lead young people to question and challenge their cultural inheritance rather than simply 'celebrating' it"

    Hmm. Black History Month will certainly be different when the Pennysta regime comes to power.

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  13. "What should shock about these appointments is not just the suspect opinions of Roberts and Ferguson, but the fact that the Tories have fundamentally misunderstood the entire purpose of history."

    No, no. Like Johann Hari, you've got the wrong end of the stick here. What should shock is the notion that the Prime Minister and his education secretary get to appoint one or two historians who then get to set a curriculum that is rolled out across the entire country. If they'd picked someone you happened to approve of, would you have written an article about the teaching of history in schools? I suspect not - because you aren't really interested in the teaching of history. And that's the problem right there.

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  14. Hi Laurie,

    I agree that Gove is a crank and the plan to recast school history as a story of good old Britannia's triumph in painting the world pink is worrying. More than that, it is pretty sad, given that our world role is being pretty rapidly eclipsed.

    But actually, I think Ferguson is on to something. There needs to be something to tie school history together, rather than the hodgepodge of Henry the 8th's wives and C20th dictators that is offered now. A story of the rise of the West seems as good a story as any to unite the subject, provided it is honest and includes the unpleasant bits: the slave trade, the extermination of Amerindians, enclosure, Peterloo, the near-suicide of the West during WWI and II. Nor should it ignore the great acheivements: science, medicine, the rights of man, the rights of woman, black liberation, economic progress. If school history can give students a sense of how the modern world was made, how we reached where we are today, it would be a great acheivement.

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  15. Four legs good, two legs bad.

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  16. Re the right vs left comment.

    Yes, Britain was a terrible country. It went to india and stopped infanticide and burning of women.

    The left's answer is to import female circumcision, mass abuse of women, sharia law and unhindered assault on our country and history.

    The only thing wrong in this country is that the right tends to forgo some of what it should stand for.

    As for the left not meddling in the classroom, and in the country, well, sorry, dream on.

    I have no time for leftists, their twisted backward cretinous world view deserves to die.

    Lastly, as for millions, yes, look round this globe, count the AK47s, and note the misery where socialism and communism have run wild.

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  17. It really is quite shocking that so many commentators are so entirely unpatriotic. No wonder our once great country is on the slide to third world status. Whose side are you on? God and the Queen? Or paganism and the darkness? I find your attitudes shocking.

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  18. God save the Queen!

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  19. I don't expect or intend this to pass a filter, but simply to be read. I'd like to call Poe's Law on the entire comment stream out of blind, tear-blind hope for humanity, but have my doubts. "God and the Queen?" ... Holy shit. How do these people navigate their way here? Good luck.

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  20. The imperial controversy by Andrew Murray deals with Ferguson and his co-thinkers
    http://www.manifestopress.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1:the-imperial-controversy&catid=1:the-imperial-controversy&Itemid=2

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  21. Hey my friend victoria i m patriotic .


    THANKS METROGYL

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