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Gove backtracks and so do I – to the terrible ‘history’ I was taught as a child

June 22, 2013

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic revolutionary changes. . . . Competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be getting six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge for its citizens, just like national defence.”

Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing

To me, education is the key to pretty much everything. Aaron Sorkin’s quote is apt; I can’t think of a better ‘cure’ for racism, homophobia, intolerance, and the many other ills that stem from our frequently profound ignorance – and I speak as someone whose early education was a very inconsistent, and sometimes very counter-productive, process. I had no idea how ignorant I really was until I tried to apply what I’d been taught in adult life, only to discover I’d been egregiously misled in so many ways, on so many subjects. It took a lifetime of work to undo the damage, if indeed that’s a fair assessment of what I’ve managed since.

I’m eternally thankful to one man: Mr. Hastings, my history teacher. Nobody else made the impression he did; we’d sit down, and very frequently he would roll a sliding blackboard to one side, revealing wonderful coloured chalk drawings of Roman forts, industrial machines, maps – and only much later would I realise that when I passed his empty classroom and saw him drawing some new illustration, I was making a subconscious connection between his commitment and love of his subject, as expressed by the amount of work he put into those lovely drawings. I still remember how heart-breaking and shocking I found it when, at the end of the lesson, he would casually pick up the blackboard eraser and wipe out hours of work in moments.

That work was not wasted, not lost on me, anyway. My interest in history has been an abiding theme throughout my life, and he instilled it in me, even though now I realise that his ‘history’ was very selective, that of a generation lamenting the loss of empire – and disturbingly some 40 years later, that of Education Secretary Michael Gove. Mr. Hastings was a product of his time, and I hold no grudge; that I reserve for too many of my other teachers, who failed so miserably to approximate his influence. Mostly, they were time-servers; dull, pedantic; authoritarians without authority.

Which leads me nicely to Gove’s latest retreat. Recently, he made yet another attempt to misdirect the nation’s education, this time regarding the history syllabus. I’m not going to spend too much time on this, but I need to offer just a few examples of the idiotic ideas he championed, right up until he got such a caning (!) from academics, historians and teachers that he and the DfE were obliged to follow the example of so many other coalition partners, and back-peddle like mad. Here’s just a few crass examples: Adam Smith was English; Five- to seven-year-olds were to be taught the concepts of “nation, civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace”; Clive of India was to be held up as an example of British greatness; terms were to be introduced, such as “Britain and her empire” and “the Heptarchy”, and 11-14 year olds were obliged to learn the names of all the main Chartists.

Simon Schama had some scathing things to say about Gove’s agenda…oops, I meant curriculum…speaking at the Hay Festival recently:

“The list of subjects seems to be essentially memories of A-levels circa 1965, embalmed in aspic and sprinkled with tokenism – tokenism of the wrong kind.”

He observed that Gove’s proposals were too focused on white males, with too much emphasis on “how Britain influenced the world” rather than vice versa, remarking on the “insulting, offensive, imperviousness of what it takes to unite together the history of the glorious heritage of Britain” and the idea that it could be demonstrated by the inclusion of Clive of India, who established the supremacy of the East India Company in 18th-century Bengal and who, according to Schama, was in fact a “sociopathic, corrupt thug”, who made “our most dodgy bankers look like a combination of Mary Poppins and Jesus Christ”.

“History is not about self-congratulation. It’s not really about chasing the pedigree of the wonderfulness of us, nor about chasing the pedigree of the reprehensible awful nature of us…I’m sure Michael Gove did not actually want to give us 1066 and All That
without the jokes, but that’s pretty much what we’ve ended up with.”

And there endeth the lesson, from someone who knows a damn sight more about history than Gove ever will.


Complaining about Gove’s inadequacies is about as pointless as complaining about the British weather (not that it ever stops us, mind you). I wasn’t going to write about it, but in a Guardian datablog article (Are the worst schools really in the poorest areas?), the subject of education came up again, in an interesting format. Their datablogs offer statistical information about subjects, presented in graphic representations. In this case, there were two maps of England side by side, both containing regional representations of child poverty and educational standards respectively. I was interested to see if there was a correlation between poverty and failed schools, but as it turned out, there wasn’t much, although various posters pointed out some problems with the way the analysis was done and the information on which it was based). I also thought a third map would have been helpful, so we could see the relationship between three metrics: the amount of money spent, the standards achieved, and child poverty.

I was also struck by the paradoxical nature of an early comment from the teacher who claimed to be ‘offended’ by the exercise (there’s always one). More provocatively, she also made a claim that caught my attention:

“Just because children get low grades does not make a school bad!”

I really cannot agree with this, but for almost contradictory reasons. The purpose of state schools in a developed country is to make them fit for employment. Education is proscribed by those who fund it. The industrial revolution required mill owners to educate workers coming in off the fields to stop them jamming themselves into expensive machinery (the cost in human terms never seemed to be a factor – bodies were replaceable, so great were the number of poor people seeking employment). The necessity to create a managerial class also motivated early industrialists to invest in basic numeracy, literacy and skills required to keep the profits rolling in.

But as with all investment, the amount was determined by the return, and no more than the bare minimum was spent (with very few honourable exceptions). Nothing much has changed; education is not designed to make us free, self-deterministic, independent – but to conform, to fit into the machinery of capitalism, and to aspire to do so.

The historian AJP Taylor wrote: “All change in history, all advance, comes from the non-conformists. If there had been no troublemakers, no dissenters, we should still be living in caves.”

The line between education and indoctrination is very fine. Since state education in the industrialised world is funded out of the profits of consumerism – all taxes being levelled on its proceeds – it should hardly be surprising to discover the syllabus reflects the best interests of its patrons. For a teacher to insist that, in this unfortunate clime, the grades are not a measure of education standards, is both foolish, but also brave. The teacher’s job, defined by the state and ideologues like Gove, it to make people fit for purpose.

The teacher’s job, defined by a broader definition of social and personal responsibility, and the spirit of intellectual enquiry, should be to instil knowledge, tolerance, independent thought, intellectual courage, a lifelong desire to acquire ever more information, and the ability to discriminate between fact and fiction.

Do grades measure such progress? Actually, I think they might, but only if the marking system awards the virtues I’ve described, and not merely the agenda of the capitalist state which, as ever, is to make a profit out of us.


I’ve written this article with MarkHB in mind. Mark  – a really nice chap I’d like to meet one day despite him living as far away from me as it’s possible to get without leaving the planet – posts here every now and then, and we’ve corresponded fruitfully over the past few years. A frequent topic we touch on is whether it is credible to imagine our civilisation transiting peacefully from its current condition and architecture, to something more viable, more sustainable, and above all, more equitable. I think Mark is more optimistic than I am; yesterday I pointed out that some of the most profound and far-reaching social changes in human history rose out of the ashes of two world wars, which implies that only through what Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’ (admittedly in a different context),  can new paradigms find space to achieve their potential.

Mark – I’d really like to be wrong. Try as I might, I can’t really see how we can evolve away from a social and political construct that exerts such a powerful grip on reality, that is so pervasive and ubiquitous that most people would laugh at the very idea I’m discussing here, let alone consider it a viable alternative. I do harbour one idea that I think you’ll like though, and it’s this: as each generation gets its hand on the levers of power, its ideas are set, values internalised, and we are all by that time part of a system of some kind or another. If we are to promote real, systemic change, then education provides us with perhaps the only viable route. Adults are, for the most part, fixed in time and space, and bad or ill-formed ideas cannot be dislodged; they have become the norms and standards we then try to maintain, no matter what the cost. These values and the way they manifest themselves are the zombie myths that each generation protects until death, after which they just rise out of the grave to haunt us.

But let us not forget that we might, just might, be able to kill those zombies, for education is the silver bullet.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. John Russell (Twitter@JohnRussell40) permalink
    June 22, 2013 9:39 am

    Spot on, Graham.

    Many of the problems society faces are caused by the trap of generations doomed to repeat the faults of their parents.

    While it’s a truism that it’s our parents from whom we acquire our underlying morality and values, this fails to recognise the difference effective and targeted education can make when it adopts a gently interventionist role. By, for instance, teaching simple subjects such as child-development, nutrition—even basic child-rearing skills—to young teenagers, the cycle of low self esteem, low aspiration and even criminality and can be broken. By recognising the importance and improving these fundamental skills, within one generation the accruing benefits to society—even just in financial terms—could be simply massive. And it’s a virtuous circle which can reverse the whole circle of decline which has afflicted much of society since the 60s.

    Of course, Gove and his elitist public school ilk will never get their heads round this. It takes ex-comprehensive school pupils to realise the significance.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 22, 2013 11:26 am

    Hi John – you’re quite right. The same ‘gentle intervention’ is absolutely true of climate change – and why, I think, that so many ‘adults’ object to what they call climate change propaganda – because young people don’t necessarily have the biases and rigidity, or indeed the anxieties, that give rise to denial in the strict Freudian sense of avoiding those ‘inconvenient truths’ we cannot bring ourselves to confront. I hear quite often about how young people, concerned for their future, and finding something powerful with which to needle their parents as a matter of duty, will upbraid them on environmental issues. We need more of this, for they are a receptive audience – although that’s also something to be aware of when Gove tries to diminish climate change and environmental issues in the curriculum, as he did recently.

    I agree that the significance is more self-evident to those unburdened by an elitist education. What we need is for teachers to appreciate the significance, for they have enough ‘wriggle room’ in state education to make a difference. It’s all about small changes, little inferential bits of information plugged in consistently. Not sure we’ll see it, but we can but hope – and keep advocating the principle.

  3. markhb permalink
    June 23, 2013 1:08 am

    Thanks Graham, I am honoured. Just for the record, I count myself as someone who expects (and braces for) the worst, yet hopes (and works for) for the best! Finding balance between those polar opposites is tricky! And chances are that its already too late for the “gentle intervention” to be much more than a sticking plaster on the gaping wound that anthropogenic climate change is inflicting upon our planet. You may be right that time is overdue for another bout of “creative destruction”, though its not clear what form that may take.In fact World War 3 might be beginning to happen already but this time within rather than between nations, as the peoples of the world’s cities rise up to protest against the corruption, incompetence and the ignorant prejudices and entrenched interests of their representatives. Maybe the ever advancing technology of communications can help us to educate ourselves when the curriculum is manipulated, because sufficient information is certainly out there now, and access to it is broadening all the time. Certainly that hope such as it is resides as it has always done, with new generations…..

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 23, 2013 7:19 am

    Hey Mark – my pleasure mate. For the record also: I have written the most pessimistic analyses going, but I keep writing because I refuse to give up hope, even though some other part of me thinks I’m wasting my time. I might be quite mad really, but it seems to me a worthy kind of madness, and I’ve never been a fan of giving up on anything.

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