History wars

Saturday 19 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Frobisher 1-3 School Fights

Education secretary Michael Gove recently said, ‘there is no part of the national curriculum so likely to prove an ideological battleground for contending armies as history.’ On this at least, Gove and his critics appear to agree. In a survey conducted by the Historical Association, just 4% of history teachers thought Gove’s proposed curriculum a positive change. Celebrity historian after celebrity historian has been wheeled out to champion or lambast the curriculum, with Simon Schama declaring the final draft ‘insulting and offensive’ and Niall Ferguson that it is a ‘major improvement’. But what lies behind this acrimonious ‘ideological battleground’? Why are history teachers so stridently opposed to Gove’s plans?

On one hand the debate on history education appears to rest on content. Michael Gove argues the draft curriculum will the failure over generations to impart to children ‘the story of our islands’, and the historic role Britain has played in the world. His critics accuse him of promoting a ‘little England version of our national past linked to an isolationist view of our national future’. Borrowing Orwell’s oft-quoted words ‘he who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past’, both sides compare the other’s choice of content to the machinations of a totalitarian regime. But as much as what is taught, the debate around history and the national curriculum is also about how history is taught. For the past twenty or so years, the focus has been on child-centred ‘active’ history teaching, looking at discrete periods, with a thematic approach. Gove and his supporters make the case for a fresh emphasis on chronology, fact learning and periodisation, arguing their neglect has resulted in the historical illiteracy and enforced ignorance of a generation.

The late Eric Hobsbawm observed that the loss of historical memory has meant that most young people now grow up in a ‘a sort of permanent present, lacking any organic relation to the past’. What is particular and special about our relationship to the past? Have children been forced in to a ‘permanent present’ through years of poor history education? And if so, does Gove’s new curriculum offer a way forward?

Jackie Eales
professor of early modern history, Canterbury Christ Church University; president, Historical Association

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Robert Peal
history teacher, West London Free School, and education research fellow, Civitas

Helen Birtwistle
history and politics teacher, South London school

Produced by
Helen Birtwistle history and politics teacher, South London school
Recommended readings
Michael Gove may have been defeated in his curriculum battle, but the fight has been worth it

Even those opposed to Gove's history curriculum reforms must admit it has focused attention on teaching

John Blake, Telegraph, 12 July 2013

Simon Schama on Michael Gove

Is the teaching of history in British schools too lightweight? Michael Gove thinks so. Many teachers, and some of our most distinguished historians, disagree. Sameer Rahim discusses the incendiary evidence with Simon Schama.

Sameer Raheem, Telegraph, 2 July 2013

‘Jingoistic and illegal’ – what teachers think of Michael Gove's national curriculum reforms

Over 100 historians claim Education Secretary’s plan ‘lacks balance and promotes political views’

Richard Garner, Independent, 12 June 2013

Memorable history lessons: dress up, role play and personal stories

Neil Bates explains how turning up to class dressed in a 1920s frock helped to engage his pupils

Neil Bates, Guardian, 28 April 2013

Does History Matter?

A Cautionary Tale for the Tuning Project

Johann N. Neem, American Historical Association, April 2013

Eric Hobsbawm wanted to use History to improve lives. Now, about those views on the Soviet Union...

On why, as jobs go, Marxist historian isn’t often suggested by career advisers at school

Mark Steel, Independent, 2 October 2012

Gove’s paradox

The Education Secretary’s free schools agenda is at odds with his populist rhetoric about history teaching

Tristam Hunt, Spectator, 21 April 2012

Who needs art anyway?

"I was impressed by the intensity of the debate and the high level of intellectual engagement, not least by the audience. It was an invigorating, even exhilarating experience to be part of a festival based on the conviction that disagreement is good. The Battle of Ideas is a fantastic concept, may it spread epidemically to the rest of the world. I am already looking forward to next year's event."
Thomas Hylland Eriksen, professor of social anthropology, University of Oslo; novelist

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