Like a glutton for punishment, I’ve been reading another piece by Michael Gove, lamenting the shit job history teachers did with my generation and the rubbish educational policies of Labour. As one of those sadly undereducated fools, I have what we might call a vested interest in this whole debate, so I clicked on the dreaded Daily Mail link and I found they’ve actually reproduced his entire piece. So I read it.
You know what gets me about this piece? It’s his phrase ‘after proper study’.
Apparently, ‘after proper study,’ aspects of WWI history have been reassessed. Oh, that’s good then. Time to shut up shop, folks. Gove has spoken and History is Ended.
This is the perspective of a child who just wants to be right. We all go through this stage (god knows, my parents would no doubt believe I’m still in the middle of it). But as you learn history – or English, or actually really any discipline – you learn that there’s more than being ‘right’.
It is impossible to say, for absolutely certain, whether or not WWI could have been averted. It’s impossible to know how much blame to apportion to different figures, who might have acted differently had they chosen to, had they known something else, had they (dare I suggest?) been taught history in a less jingoistic fashion.
But what history does is to bear witness to all these differing viewpoints. We form arguments, sitting in class. The teacher does not, thank goodness, give little Eleanor a big tick for concluding in her essay that Britain Was Right. Of course, Gove hastily adds in some nice platitudes about how we need an ‘open debate’. Except, you know, it’s the kind of ‘open debate’ where you label everything you don’t like as ‘not proper study’ and you decide you personally have insider info on the Regius Professor of Cambridge and why he’s wrong.
Now, I haven’t studied WWI since GCSE. I study and teach English Literature. What I’m researching at the moment is, basically, how fiction works: how do people respond to narratives that we know are stories, not facts. And so, Gove’s point about Blackadder really hit home for me. I know he’s cited this series because, well, it’s TV innit? Lowbrow. Timewasting. Not something that should feature in a Proper History Class with a blackboard and lined paper and solemn black-and-white pictures of generals on the walls.
Like most people who did History GCSE in my generation, I saw this episode sitting in class. I’ve never yet met someone who didn’t say they were moved by it, even shocked by the ending. It taught us a powerful lesson because it made us confront the history we were studying as something real.
Blackadder works because it plays with our expectations of fiction. We know it’s not documentary; we know it’s comedy, or farce. If we’ve seen other war films, we know that the ending is required to be tragic or uplifting, a miraculous display of bravery and escape or minutely-observed death.
If we’ve seen other final episodes in the Blackadder series, we have another expectation: we know that the in-joke here is that they all die, perhaps in some fairly comic, ahistorical manner (I’m thinking of the ending of Blackadder II, which reveals that Queen Elizabeth I was in fact usurped by a German male impersonator). So, when you see Blackadder muttering to himself as he tries to scrape together yet another cunning plan, you think you know what’s going to happen.
That ending – which cuts, mid-laugh, from Blackadder’s final joke to a slow-motion charge over the top, to a field a poppies and birdsong – is shocking because it doesn’t give us what we expect from fiction. We don’t see them die. We don’t see either a comic, clever ending or a noble, glorious finish. All our nice fictional certainties are shattered.
And that’s the point. In WWI itself, millions of stories were left unfinished. Thousands of soldiers ended up as ‘the remains of eight unknown soldiers’. Thousands more are still being picked out of fields in France and Flanders. The crushing arrogance of assuming that anything like ‘proper study’ can yet assess the role of WWI generals is appalling. You can’t write an ending to this one, not yet, and maybe not ever.
Obviously, historians are going to keep going over this story. It isn’t finished and set in stone. But that’s how it should be taught: as a conflict where both sides thought they were right, and people on the same side could disagree passionately about whether what was happening was carnage or a just, noble war.
There’s an agenda to Gove’s claims (god forbid I suggest even the right-wing sometimes has an agenda). I know people who are currently in Afghanistan, probably so do you, reading this. Gove would like to pretend that anyone who historicizes WWI differently from him is failing in their patriotic duty to recognize the ‘nobility and courage’ of soldiers. He calls this ‘Britain’s special tradition of liberty’. He’s setting up Haig and the generals of WWI as the natural predecessors of our current troops, and hoping the comparison will guilt us into accepting both wars as just, noble endeavours fought by intelligent, visionary leaders.
I was going to end this post by question how on earth Gove’s vision of history could be taught without excluding, say, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon from the curriculum. But you’ve probably already thought of that.
So I thought about all of the other voices that are tacitly erased from Gove’s version of WWI, voices whose account of the war doesn’t tally with what Gove would like – at a distance of nearly 100 years – to believe. I couldn’t help noticing the discrepancy between the upper-class men Gove sees as the heroes of WWI, and lots of the men and women who’re currently serving in Afghanistan. And since Gove believes all lefties are motivated entirely by nefarious agendas (like, you know, the wish for equality or common decency), I will now show off my leftie feminist agenda.
Here’s just a few of the voices from WWI that I suspect don’t feature on Gove’s list of favourites. Catch them quick.