This is a quick post, which I couldn’t help writing when I read what Michael ‘I’m not a racist but’ Gove has been saying about the teaching of history. Apparently, our Noble Educator claims:
“There’s children, including my own, who can’t remember, well perhaps didn’t even know in the first place, whether the Romans, Egyptians or the Greeks came in which particular order and whether or not the Vikings were their antagonists, protagonists, sons or daughters.”
One might begin by observing that there’s children, not including any I teach, who know that ‘children’ is plural and that the correct form is ‘there are children’. But that would be cheap sniping, and lord forbid we engage in any of that.
To be serious: I have a real difficulty with Gove’s statement. No doubt he would, if he were asked, claim it wasn’t a deeply considered statement, just an off-the-cuff remark, and that’s why it’s so shallow and ahistorical. But can that really excuse Gove’s rhetoric?
The description of ‘Romans, Egyptians and Greeks’ coming in a ‘particular order’ harks back, for me, to the way history was presented in the most old-fashioned books: as a procession with one civilization overtaking another, like a baton relay race where the leaders were always the most advanced and those who’d been overtaken quietly dropped out. In reality, of course, Romans, Egyptians and Greeks all lived during the same time periods. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to be Roman, Greek, or Egyptian today. Perhaps Michael Gove imagines that only the most illustrious (=Western?) moments of any given civilization should be given due prominence, but if so, I would love to know which brief slice of time he intends to immortalize as ‘the British’? The tenth century? The fifteenth? World War I?
No, I suspect Gove means, English (sorry! British! No doubt he meant British!) history is a constant focus. At the far borders of Our Great Nation, in the margins of Great British History, there is space (in neatly chronological order) for Egypt (no time period … doubtless it’s all pretty much the same over the centuries, doncha know, lots of sand and so on), for Greece (Classical, minus the phalluses of course), and for Rome (Imperial).
Gove’s fundamentally racist view is pretty easy to take down, admittedly. But views like his are based in an ignorance that does a lot of damage. If we teach history as a discrete set of civilizations, we teach our children to believe that the view of the dominant military power is the most important. We erase from history the lesser-known cultures, the cultures that are already suffering under the bias of contemporary racism. We ignore the rich interactions between civilizations that resulted in medieval English churches built with Roman stone, in Greek gems made into Northumbrian jewellery, in Iranian spices used in fifteenth-century cooking, in Italian ideas about mathematics dispersed to feed into the lonely thought processes of reclusive seventeenth-century physicists, in polymaths of all nations gathering to work on twentieth and twenty-first century scientific developments in Britain.
I’ll be fairly fed up if Gove’s ignorance replaces that collaboration with a number-line view of the past, but I won’t be surprised: this isn’t history, it’s jingoism peddled by an idiot.
I’ve now found a longer quotation from Gove in the Telegraph, which ends:
“The thing that I want people to have is an understanding of the past and an ability to analyse. And if students at the end of studying history come out as Maxists who hate the oppressive narrative of baronial rule that is the spine of English history, as long as they love history, I will be delighted.”
Baronial rule, the spine of English history? Excuse me while, as a medievalist, I leave to laugh myself silly …