Michael Gove’s performance on yesterday morning’s Radio 4 discussion on the new National Curriculum for history was a triumph. His co-panellists, Andrew Marr, Simon Sharma, Margaret McMillan and Tom Holland, have a record in academic and popular history – sometimes both – and a personal interest in the subject that distinguishes them from the leftist activists who have disrupted the teaching of history since the first national curriculum in 1988. Accepting that his “opening offer” on the curriculum had been thought by many people to be overcrowded, he presented the revised version as balanced and thoughtful in a way that had the others falling over themselves to agree with him.
Simon Schama said that history involved “both telling a story and asking questions”, Margaret MacMillan that school history needed to start with children’s own surroundings, and where they are, so that you start with national history, and then go beyond the borders, and Tom Holland that young children needed to know “the building blocks of our common culture,” including legends such as Alfred burning the cakes.
Peace had broken out. The island story had as much to offer the Left as the Right – a point Tony Benn liked to make in relation to the English civil war, and particularly in relation to the leveller, John Lilburne, whom I confess to admiring. Michael Gove was also right to say that it was not for him to give children just one idea of the First World War, and a few right of centre historians could be reminded of this.
There was indeed a moral dimension to this war, which would have left Europe to militaristic totalitarianism had Germany won, but attacks on incompetence at the top started with the Wipers Times rather than Oh What a Lovely War, and the phrase “lions led by donkeys” was probably coined by a member of the German high command. The best that can be said of first world war generals is that they eventually learned from their mistakes, but the mistakes themselves were colossal and culpable.
At least one of Michael Gove’s critics, though, is unrepentant. Tricia Kelleher, head of The Perse Foundation School in Cambridge, accused him in The Guardian last week of leading us into a cul-de-sac, and “hitting the rewind button” –
“Imagine if you taught children history without Mandela, for example. Of course we should understand what happened in this country, because it is part of the cultural core that brings us together, but not to be looking around the world is just foolhardy. Our children are global citizens.”
Never mind that the curriculum’s aims include:
“…know and understand significant aspects of the history of the wider world: the nature of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires; characteristic features of past non-European societies; achievements and follies of mankind…”
and, for 11-14 year olds,
“at least one study of a significant society or issue in world history and its interconnections with other world developments”.
Ms Kelleher’s comments would have had some justification if they had been based on the first draft. As it is, they are simply out of date.