A while back, I found Michael Gove’s belief in traditional history almost beguiling. This is what the BBC reported back in February of this year:
Under Mr Gove’s plans, revealed earlier this month, children will learn a complete history of Britain, with a clear “narrative of British progress” and an emphasis on heroes and heroines of the past.
The youngest children, as is currently the case, will be taught about key historical figures, and from the age of seven, pupils will be expected to learn a detailed chronological history of Britain, from the Stone Age through to the end of the Cold War.
That phrase “heroes and heroines of the past” did worry me rather a lot, but – at the time – I kind of let it ride. More on this later.
The education secretary, Michael Gove, has come under fire for citing PR-commissioned opinion polls as evidence of teenagers’ ignorance of key historical events.
Gove’s department has admitted he cited polls originating from Premier Inn and UKTV Gold press releases.
And so it is that we may see evidenced the real reason Michael Gove wants to get his hands on our history: if we stop it at “the end of the Cold War”, as it would appear he would like to be the case, the victory of anti-Communism is complete in its finest and most indisputable hour: the Berlin Wall collapses; Germany is reunited; neoliberalism’s trickle-down effect still hasn’t been shown to be the farce and falsehood it actually is; light-touch regulation still hasn’t destroyed millions of livelihoods; the credit crunch hasn’t yet crunched; mental ill-health hasn’t mushroomed dramatically along with personal debt.
But that’s not the only advantage of stopping history at “the end of the Cold War”. Nor is it the only aspect which worries me about Mr Gove’s real motives. A man capable of using a sequence of press releases to justify a prejudice about the nature of how we must inform modern life with historical events is just about the most preoccupying element of the whole affair. And this is where I return to the phrase “heroes and heroines of the past”. It’s not just that traditional history, the sort that seems to float Gove’s boat, is – inevitably (at least for the kind of historians Gove will run with) – a HIS-story much more than it’s ever a HER-story. No. It’s that all the democratising tendencies which are looking to flower around us – those driven, even where incompletely, by social networks and media of all kinds – seem to be travelling in a direction quite opposed to the old hierarchies of kings and queens.
Modern politics, little by little, if left at the mercy of these trends, will fall apart and disintegrate quite irreversibly. And it seems clear to me that this is one barricade Mr Gove does not want us to tumble.
By arguing all he wants is a chronological description of famous people which stops at the vanquishing of the evil party which fought and sustained the Cold War so mercilessly – something essentially he is asking us to buy into – he is actually looking to shore up the old ways of doing politics. Old ways which, left to their own devices, an educated civilisation and populace would pull apart tiny thread by thread.
By rewriting the way we teach and talk about the past, he is looking to protect his hierarchical view of how politics – the politics which he knows how to lever and make function – must be conducted: people in charge; famous people at that; famous people like Mr Gove & Co.
If we don’t think it important enough to fight him on the beaches of the past, let us at least consider it crucial enough to fight him on the beaches which will shape the future.
Because that’s what he’s improperly aiming to do: Mr Sloppy is doing everything to distract us from seeing the real Mr Undemocracy he is. We mustn’t allow him to confuse us.
Whilst Gove’s Mr Sloppy is the smoke and mirrors which still bemuse, Gove’s Mr Undemocracy is the real enemy out there.