My son, currently in Year One, is studying the Norman Conquest, or “knights and castles” as it’s been sold to him. He understands the dating and knows that 1066 was nearly a thousand years ago, before even Mummy was alive. He has a basic grasp of the chronology (“Edward, Harold, William – who was a baddie ‘cause he wasn’t Anglo-Saxon, then a goodie ‘cause he won”). There are bits and bobs he still misses , but it’s understandable at that age. For instance, he thinks women and girls didn’t exist (“because knights and princes and soldiers and kings were all men, Mummy!”). That’s okay, right? It’s perfectly possible to have a reading of the past that obliterates half of humanity, isn’t it? After all, my little boy’s only five (don’t worry, I’ll get him to read some Caitlin Moran when he’s older, then he’ll realise we women were just all busy suffering from cystitis).
My son’s patchy view of the past – a world of victories, defeats, goodies and baddies – keeps him entertained. It’s shifted his attention away from Star Wars (“which did still happen, but in a galaxy far away, and probably before the dinosaurs, Mummy”). He dresses up as a knight, has made a cardboard shield and re-enacts the Battle of Hastings with Playmobil every evening (adding in a Stamford Bridge prequel at weekends). It’s lovely to see him so enthused about the past, even if to him, the people are still plastic figures lacking in intellect, complexity, nuance, and above all femaleness. All the same, as my son gets older I expect him to develop a more sophisticated view of days of yore, one that’s still based on stuff which happened but which doesn’t circumvent the really essential truths (such as people being people and women existing). The alternative would be him turning into Michael Gove, something no mother should wish to contemplate (I’d still love my son, mind. I’m not a bigot. It would just take me some time to come to terms with his Gove-ness).
Michael Gove would no doubt approve of where my son is right now. Of course, if my son’s school were taking a truly Gove-ian approach to history, they’d be starting from the beginning with the Emperor Palpatine and Qui Gon Jin and – sorry, that’s going too far back, they’d be starting with the Stone Age (at least there were women there – you’d need someone to cook the sabre-tooth tiger once Primitive Man had discovered fire). So you’d have children studying nice, simple people when they’re little themselves, and more complex, thoughtful, enlightened types when they’re more grown-up (culminating with Margaret Thatcher! The pinnacle of human development! And a presumably cystitis-free woman, too!). I don’t mean to be rude but if there’s one thing that makes me think people in the past just were more stupid than us, it’s that people in the not-too-distant past used to think of people in the more distant past in this way. At the risk of sounding like Rowan Williams, it’s just *sigh* more complicated than that.
The alignment of more ancient times with younger minds in Gove’s current proposals bothers me. Are Stone Age people effectively history’s five-year-olds, key figures of the British Empire its teenagers? And if not, why do some eras merit more a necessarily more sophisticated focus than others? I’m not intrinsically against people learning selective chronological narratives – we do it all the time, otherwise our heads might explode at the sheer bloody complexity of everything – but let’s be clear about it: this is not, as the DfE claims it is, teaching children about “Britain’s place in the world and how its past has influenced its present”, nor will it “help students understand the challenges of our own time”. It’s just storytelling. We could just make it up. In fact, if it’s a moral message we’re after, why not just believe in Star Wars? (Because the Rebels are pretty dodgy themselves, if you ask me. And once again, there are hardly any women.)
And yet there are now leading historians – by which I mean popular historians – who’ve stepped in to support Gove’s view. For instance, Niall Ferguson has this to say of Gove’s critics:
Surely they can’t sincerely think it’s acceptable for children to leave school (as mine have all done) knowing nothing whatever about the Norman conquest, the English civil war or the Glorious Revolution, but plenty (well, a bit) about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement?
Frankly, I’m bloody appalled that the children of an historian can know “nothing whatever” about the Norman conquest. Doesn’t Ferguson talk to his own kids? Hell, my children are three and five and already know plenty of irrelevant details about German literature ‘cause that’s the subject of Mummy’s PhD and dammit, children, I WILL pass on my knowledge! Niall Ferguson, I’m not saying you’re a bad parent, but that’s just weird.
In a joint letter to The Times, the likes of Ferguson and David Starkey (not a fan of women’s influence in history at the best of times) argue that proposed changes offer “a golden opportunity to place history back at the centre of the national curriculum”. Well yes, indeed. A golden opportunity to learn about the olden days, days of yore, knights and castles and however else we might want to talk about the past providing it’s not in a way that could impinge on the comfort of the dominant classes of the present. When my partner lectured in history, he’d sometimes refer to LEGO and Playmobil sets, pointing out that most of the figures in the Vikings, Barbarians or Romans sets were male, reinforcing a distorted view of the past. But the sets reflect what people think they already know and what they’ve decided to believe. Perhaps in the end, that will be seen as evidence in itself.
NOTE TO PEDANTS: Yes, I KNOW the Anglo-Saxons were positioned on Senlac Ridge and the floor above is hence inappropriately flat. I’ll add in the Yellow Pages next time, okay?