Monday, 22 April 2013

Gove's hysterical take on the past

I suppose, that as a historian, I should rejoice that Michael Gove claims to be determined to improve the standard of teaching.  However, his constant playing to the gallery of a blinkered minority that believes rote-learning and the importance of the British Empire have been significantly downgraded means that this is another example of Tory hypocrisy at its lowest.

The study of history is not an end in itself.  Instead, if taught well, it equips the citizen with the scepticism and the analytical tools to enable the speedy unearthing of bunkum and bullshit.  As a man who has made his career on both manifestations, Gove needs to be careful what he wishes for.  The failures of policy that he is party to mirror those of several previous depressions, and, despite the pleas of a more complicated, global world, the same judgements apply today.

History is both enjoyable and rigorous when taught effectively.  This is not to suggest that the "empathy" school which has been criticised as an underpinning of the GCSE syllabus is the last word in pedagogy.  The ability to research and to challenge interpretations placed in front of the recipient is one of the strengths of the discipline - the rudimentary outlines of dates are necessary to create a context, but their straitjacketing of the interpretation is not necessary.

What Gove really wants to say, but would not be allowed to get away with, is that the revolution in historiography over the last century has been one of democratising the subject and the consequential rejection of his hegemonic narrative.

Whereas the Victorians were prepared to collude with the assumption that only the actions of the highest economic and political strata were relevant to the subject, the marxist current has reclaimed a much wider base for understanding the past.  The emphasis on economic and social underpinnings creates a much more rounded approach to analysing our current predicaments and obsessions - as well as a continuum of discontent and reform that is uncomfortable to our contemporary self-selecting elite.

The problem for Gove is that most advances in the subject seem to have emerged from the left, as well as ineffably better prose style.  I will keep re-reading Eric Hobsbawm because both his views and his literacy outclass contemporary rightists, and because the framework does not assume that the actions of the winners are the only relevant subjects of scrutiny.

With an economist's hat on, I am also delighted to embrace the past.  Again, the Tory approach is to lose this.  Osborne has caused a triple-dip recession on the basis of a miscalculated Excel spreadsheet formula that assumed a simple relationship between debt-to-GDP ratios and recession - as a policy-maker he might, had his bumptiousness and incompetence not intervened, have questioned whether just targeting one side of this would work (even if it wasn't another crackpot rightist theory built on sand).  Growth in GDP, if it outstrips the growth in debt, reduces the debt-to-GDP ratio - so elementary that only an innumerate and blinkered half-wit would be unable to acknowledge this.

If there were to be a genuine rebirth of history it would be based around the interactions between the past, present and future.  Relating today's miscalculations to the mistakes of the past might raise a new generation of sceptical citizens, which is why the current emphasis is to return to the days of repetition, ignorance and rote-learning.  This does the subject a disservice, but is exactly what Murdoch and his proteges wish to occur.

History is much too interesting, and important, to be left to people like Gove - nor is it confined by a national curriculum.  Appropriating it is the first step to denying an alternative narrative.  He won't, and can't succeed - but it is necessary to keep challenging the conservative certainty as uncertainty and interpretation are far more useful skills and attainments for dealing with the contemporary dystopia.

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