'Gove is using his position to recommend students be taught a predetermined conclusion on a highly emotive topic'

7th January 2014 at 14:19

Russel Tarr, head of history at the International School of Toulouse, France, writes:

Michael Gove is not shy of controversy. In a recent Daily Mail article, he attracted yet more opprobrium by arguing that history teachers should patriotically impress upon their students the lesson that the First World War was a "just" cause forced upon the British by the aggression of Germany with its "ruthless social Darwinism". 

Last year I found myself at the centre of another Gove-history row when the education secretary made a speech attacking the use of Mr Men in the classroom as a tool for teaching the rise of Nazism. He was referring to my resources on my Active History website, which I use when I teach iGCSE at the international school in Toulouse, where I am head of department. He suffered a significant backlash when hundreds of teachers, politicians and educationists came out in support of my work.

Much of the controversy that followed Mr Gove’s First World War observations has focused on professional historians vigorously debating whether his view about German war guilt is fundamentally correct. As enlightening and interesting as this academic debate is on its own terms, it has led to a predictable conclusion: some historians (such as Professor Gary Sheffield) broadly agree with Gove, while others (such as Professor Richard Evans) do not. Such is history.

The worrying thing is that this conversation diverted attention from the much more sinister dimension of the article: namely, that the secretary of state for education, who has plenty to say about curriculum content already, is now using his position of authority to recommend that students be guided towards a predetermined conclusion on a highly emotive topic.

This is objectionable in several respects. Firstly, it is always morally suspect to suggest that one particular viewpoint of any complex historical event should be presented to students as the truth. Like any self-respecting history teacher, I go to great pains to help students reach their own judgement based on critical evaluation of the evidence. I studiously avoid stating my own conclusions until after this point.

What applies to teachers applies even more to politicians, whose interference in deciding the topics of history to be taught, and the interpretations to be drawn from them, is repugnant in a liberal democracy. And what applies to politicians applies especially to Mr Gove, who interprets history through a blunt dichotomy of "right versus wrong" and exposes further ignorance by equating this with "right versus left", unleashing his vitriol against "left-wing academics" who "denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage". As Professor Evans points out, the debate about the First World War does not cut along party lines: it was, after all, the historian and Conservative MP Alan Clark who referred to the British troops as "Lions led by donkeys".

Mr Gove’s perspective is skewed by his career as a journalist in a media bubble where history teachers are sidelined and misrepresented in debates about their profession. Recently, BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week had a lengthy discussion about the teaching of history in schools. The panel consisted of Mr Gove and three highly respected academics – Simon Schama, Margaret MacMillan and Tom Holland – but not a single history teacher. Despite being a lively discussion about the possible future directions of content and methodology, I found the whole thing detached and somewhat patronising.

Similarly, when Radio 4 returned to the theme the following week after Mr Gove’s vituperative Daily Mail article, it was conducted in terms of a historiographical debate between Professor Evans and Professor Sheffield, and since then everyone from Sir Tony Robinson to Boris Johnson has been given the opportunity of stating their piece – everyone, that is, except the actual members of the profession currently in the dock. As Anthony Seldon has refreshingly put it: “the failure to take schoolteaching as seriously as other professions is so prevalent that we have ceased to notice, or perhaps even care”.

Yet, despite choosing to cut himself off from any meaningful dialogue with practising history teachers, Mr Gove arrogantly justifies his strident position as an attempt to rectify what he claims is an imbalance in current history teaching. Apparently, history teachers are peddling "misunderstandings and misrepresentations" to their students: most notably by using episodes of Blackadder as documentary evidence.

I was surprised that, to some extent, even Professor Evans shared Mr Gove’s concerns on this issue, agreeing that “I don’t think teachers should be showing Blackadder in history lessons…There is plenty of excellent material on the First World War that they can use”. This attitude is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. When history teachers use a clip from Blackadder, it is at the end of a teaching unit, precisely to highlight its limitations as historical source material: the question “How reliable is this source to the historian of the First World War?” can only be answered by considering the motives of the scriptwriters and against the background of existing knowledge from classroom studies.

The whole point of using Blackadder is to illustrate that no single source has all the answers – even when its name is Michael Gove. Different sources reflect different agendas for different audiences – even when that source is Mr Gove, who demonstrates a slick ability to change his tune depending on whether he is talking urbanely with a panel of experts on Radio 4 or writing a rabble-rousing piece for a captive audience at the Daily Mail. As history teachers, we continually bombard our students with fresh evidence, demand that they question more deeply, challenge their assumptions, be on their guard against cant of all types.

The great irony is that Mr Gove’s recent attempt to impose one view of history on everyone else has generated exactly the sort of debate he was hoping to close down. Encouragingly too, historians such as Simon Schama and Professor Sheffield have demonstrated a ready willingness to engage with teachers in this debate on Twitter. Let’s hope that the politicians, as well as the media, start to do the same.



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