Taking the Tory out of History: Gove, Again.

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. 

Bedford, ‘Munition Wages’

Collins, ‘Women at Munition Making’

Bristowe, ‘Over the Top’

Rosenberg, ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’

7 thoughts on “Taking the Tory out of History: Gove, Again.

    • Oh, wow …. I’d never heard of this. Fascinating! Very similar to Blackadder, in a way – comics are still seen as ‘not serious’ and therefore incapable of making a serious point. And they really can.

  1. The present is hotly contested so the past should not be any different. I always find it strange that some people, even quite intelligent people, seem to think that we can arrive at a single ‘correct’ idea of the past. We can try and get as close as possible to knowing what actually happened, but when it comes to why it happened, and certainly to the rights and wrongs of what happened, we are always likely to disagree and this may be no bad thing.

    In his latest book, Jeremy Paxman also has a dig at the traditional idea of the First World War propogated initially by war poets such as Owen and Sassoon. He may be making a valid point in suggesting that if we dimiss the war out of hand as a pointless enterprise then we risk devaluing the bravery and sacrifice of those involved, but we need to be careful not to allow our governments to use public unwillingness to ever criticise our armed forces as a tool to help justify any conflict. Whilst it is presumably the centenary of 1914 that has reignited this debate, like you I suspect an agenda here. It is not that long ago the MoD reportedly commissioned a study on how to “sell” unpopular wars to the British public.

    I really liked your point: “In WWI itself, millions of stories were left unfinished.” I tweeted that because it is worthy of notice.

    One small proof-reading point, in the fifth paragraph from the end you say “both sides though they were right” rather than “thought they were right”. I hope it is not too pedantic to draw that to your attention?

  2. Hello!

    Thank you for such a thoughtful reply, and for drawing my attention to Paxman’s book. I completely agree. There is a danger that it’s easy for us to cite Sassoon and Owen, and forget (or mock) people like Rupert Brooke. And I think some of that is not only about politics, but also about fashions in literature – Sassoon and Owen write in poetic styles we’ve come to associate with ‘gritty realism’; Brooke is writing poems in a style that seems more old-fashioned. But that’s largely because later generations have constructed it so.

    I am also sure there’s an argument to be made for people like Haig. I mean, that’s what history is about, isn’t it, making arguments and trying to see what seems to make most sense?

    So my worry isn’t primarily ‘is Gove right about Haig’, but ‘why the heck does Gove think this is the right way to teach Haig’?

    Thanks for the correction too – I decided early on, when I started blogging, that I’d not worry too much about that sort of thing because, frankly, it could take me all day (I’m dyslexic). So it’s really useful when more capable people point them out!

  3. I am a complete non-historian. Gave it up at the first possible opportunity. And I always wondered why (partly because I was shit at essays, mind). Because it wasn’t as if I actively disliked history. And I now know it was down to relevance. It was all about men (and I was at an all girls school). White men at that. Privileged, rich white men if we are really going to nail it.

    I am really glad you put a reference to some women’s voices about WW1 because I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read anything about women in WW1 (and I grant that my historical background is very limited). I’ve heard more women’s voices with regards WW2 but that’s perhaps there are more women alive today who survived and they are given a more, if limited, voice.

    So thanks for this again. Gove is an arse.

    • Thank you for the comment. I think what you say is true of so many people. I was incredibly lucky with my history teachers. They really took the trouble to make it come alive for us. In fact one of my teachers set up a screening of Schindler’s List for the whole year – those who weren’t doing history GCSE included – because she said it would shock us and make us think about what we were studying. And it did.

      We did a little bit about women poets of WWI, but I think it was for A Level, so of course, most people didn’t get the chance. I do think their voices should be more often heard. Isaac Rosenberg, who’s the author of the last poem, is considered to be one of the very few war poets who wasn’t middle-class. He had an amazing (sadly short) life: [[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Rosenberg]]. I included him because, along with the women, I think that’s the kind of voice Gove’s version of history won’t accept. I find it really offensive he is getting up in arms about the reputation of Haig, but not acknowledging the viewpoints of men like Rosenberg, and not even recognising that women’s voices have any place in the issue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s