What is history for again?

A growing row over Michael Gove’s proposed new history curriculum for England may well spark a bout of Brit bashing in Slugger and other places. Anything that seems to encourage the “great man theory “( History p 165 et seq)” of British history will be dumped on, but not only on this side of the water. One person’s theory of responsible British citizenship is another’s indulgence of imperial nostalgia and whitewash. On the row itself, the Observer report claims that even up to a month ago, the proposals were broader than the completed draft.

But  issues  of depth as well as breadth  lie behind a dispute over a “patriotic” view of history.

 Niall Ferguson who is not only a tele presenter but an historian of the mixed record of Empire has defended Gove’s basic approach on grounds that I find  require an answer. Ferguson quotes an article by Matthew Hunter in the (yes, right wing) periodical Standpoint that for me, hits a nail on the head. This is not  an ideological essay. His essenential point is , that rather than starting off learning how to be a young historian through for example making puppets of Napoleon and Wellington, you have to know something about who they were and what they did in the first place.

The Northern Ireland history and citizenship curriculum has to walk through the minefield of divided loyalties. Much depends on how it’s taught.  Do they select topics and teach them according to traditional identities, challenge them or go for blandness? According to the prospectus of Northern Ireland’s highest performing successful grammar school Lumen Christi, there is a heavy concentration on modern European and contemporary Irish.  I’d like to see some history of long ago and far away to stretch the imagination beyond traditional (dis?)comfort zones. And I would insist on a balance between British and Irish history: you can’t make sense of one without the other, even if, as you must, allow for a choice of balance. Do Prod and Catholics kids swap perceptions of history? I’d love to know.




Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London