History Proving a Touchy Subject in Britain

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in


Published: November 28, 2011
    LONDON — As the novelist George Orwell observed, he who controls the past controls the future, so it is perhaps not surprising that Orwell’s home country is the latest setting for a battle over what history is and how it is taught. In recent weeks, two conferences here have seen the polite tones of academic debate shattered as historians traded accusations of racism, dumping down and just plain ignorance.

David Cannadine, a professor of history at Princeton, at a conference in London last week on the teaching of history. He said claims of a crisis were based on the myth of a golden age.

At the same time Michael Gove, the education minister, has been urged by some of the country’s most eminent historians to abandon his plan to revamp the way history is taught in schools.

David Starkey, the author of several books about Henry VIII and his wives and a frequent guest on British television programs, argued at a historians’ conference in London this month that schools ought to focus more on Britain’s “own culture.”

When another historian argued that contemporary Britain was “rather diverse,” Mr. Starkey replied: “No it’s not. Most of Britain is a mono-culture,” adding that large parts of the country were “unmitigatingly white.” Mr. Starkey made headlines last summer after claiming, in comments on several days of riots, that Britain’s poor whites had “become black; a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion.”

Last week, David Cannadine, a professor of history at Princeton, told Mr. Gove that claims there is a crisis in the way students are taught history are based on the “myth of a golden age” when boys and girls could recite all the kings and queens of England. Speaking at a conference at the University of London to launch his new book, “The Right Kind of History,” which examines the way the subject has been taught for the past century, Mr. Cannadine said: “Complaints about the inadequacy of teaching history in English schools have been going on for as long as history has been taught in English schools.”

Currently high school students in Britain are allowed to stop studying history at the age of 14 — unlike most other European countries, Mr. Cannadine said. If the government wanted to improve the state of historical understanding it should make the subject compulsory until the age of 16, he said. But the curriculum, he said firmly, “really ought to be left alone.”

Because it tells a country’s own story, history is often a controversial subject. Last year in Texas, the State Board of Education voted to require that textbooks used in the state’s schools portray conservatives in a more positive light and emphasize the role of Christianity in American history. The board’s initial decision to delete Thomas Jefferson from a list of thinkers whose work inspired other revolutions was widely derided — and eventually reversed. But the Texas board did impose many other changes to the state’s history curriculum.

In Germany in the 1980s the Historikerstreit, or historians’ quarrel, began after Ernst Nolte, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, published an article in which he described the Holocaust as essentially “a reaction, born from fear” of the Russian revolution. His argument that Germans should stop apologizing for their past, and that Hitler’s actions were “understandable, and up to a certain point, indeed, justified,” prompted a dispute that raged for several years.

Richard Evans, at the time a young historian at the University of East Anglia, took an active role in the controversy, pointing out the similarity between some of Mr. Nolte’s arguments and those long used by anti-Semites in Europe and the U.S.

The current British battle began in the spring of 2010 when the Harvard professor Niall Ferguson made a speech at the Hay literary festival complaining “in this country, the vast majority of school pupils learn only about Henry VIII, Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King,” adding that his own children had never been taught about the original Martin Luther. Mr. Gove, who was in the audience, raised his hand and asked “Will Harvard let you spend more time in Britain to help us design a more exciting and engaging history curriculum?”

It was later announced that Mr. Cannadine and Simon Schama, a British historian who teaches at Columbia, had also been recruited to help revamp the national curriculum. Then in March Mr. Evans, now the Regius professor of history at Cambridge, launched an attack on the whole project in The London Review of Books.

Mr. Evans accused the government of wanting to foist “a celebratory history” that would gloss over the darker parts of Britain’s past — and neglect the contribution of darker peoples to the country’s heritage. The result, he warned, “would be a radically ignorant form of dumping down.”

Mr. Ferguson denied any such intention. “I don’t know why he feels the need to create the fiction that I’m some kind of reactionary monster — a hate figure for the febrile liberal imagination,” he said in an interview. “Anybody who reads my stuff knows I’m not arguing for the imposition of some kind of Tory meta-narrative.”

Mr. Evans, who attended both recent conferences, said that the effort to “convert history teaching in the schools into a means of forging a national identity went beyond party politics.” The former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown “was also very keen on this,” he said.

Mr. Ferguson also found an unlikely defender. Eric Hobsbawm, author of “The Age of Revolution,” described Mr. Ferguson as “a very smart man, and a very good historian. Loath as I am to take the Tory line, on this issue they have more of a point than most of us academics are prepared to admit.”

“History is supposed to teach people perspective and proportion,” Mr. Cannadine said, bemoaning the way the current debate has become “polarized around a set of entrenched positions: those who stress the importance of historical knowledge — facts — over historical skills, those who want a narrative of national greatness versus a warts-and-all portrait of the past, and those who want to focus on the country you’re in rather than our relationship with the broader world.”

Part of the fault, Mr. Cannadine said, lies in the nature of the discipline. “If you’re taught geometry in Adelaide or Vancouver it’s pretty much the same subject. History is taught very differently.

“I was much struck by the fact that this discussion of how history is taught was totally devoid of historical perspective. What’s being said now has been said for 100 years,” Mr. Cannadine said.

At last week’s conference, Mr. Gove partially disarmed his critics. Though he complained again about the neglect of British history in favour of either “Hitler and the Henrys” or a unit on the American West, which he referred to as “cowboys and Indians,” he added: “It’s dangerous if politicians impose too many of their own prejudices on the national curriculum.”

He also said he had “a totally open mind” on whether history should be taught till age 16.

He refused to abandon plans to revamp the curriculum, saying he thought “much more history should be taught” and in a “more demanding” way. But in an exchange with Mr. Evans, he conceded the importance of placing British history in a global context.

“He back pedalled a little,” Mr. Cannadine said afterward. Mr. Gove, he added “is clearly someone we can work with. And we have to work with him.”

History Proving a Touchy Subject in Britain - NYTimes.com

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