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Guardianista Gove

Confession time: I am, in certain respects, a fan of Michael Gove. I like his emphasis on academic rigour. I admire his enthusiasm for developing the intellect of children. I find his contempt of various progressive pedagogies refreshing and important. I’ll still criticise the analysis-free devotion of the #cultofGove, but for all I find Gove’s marketisation of education wrongheaded and corrosive of standards, nonetheless there are grounds on which he should be lauded as seeking to do right by our children.

One way in which this has found expression recently is through the National Curriculum review. Now I am aware that the specific programmes of the review lack a certain coherence, though I also think that the role of the review is less to map out a detailed scheme of work and more to try and capture what it is that we think history is for and in what spirit we ought to teach it.
And that emphasis, that spirit, is one of narrative history. Which is why, I suspect, those I have come across that protest most loudly against it also proclaim themselves unsure even of the benefits of chronology, let alone story.
As I have written previously, I’m a fan of the Our Island Story approach to history. In both civic and pedagogical terms I think it superior, as well as more consistent with the original meaning and role of history as a tool for understanding the events that shape us. Or as I said here: ‘the current fashion for emphasising the forensic analysis of sources over narrative comprehension weakens the civic-oriented impulse, [and] turns history into a skill to be learned rather than a story to be told.’ Emotionally sterile McNuggets of history dumped on the school desk for analytical autopsy do not an interested student make.
Having said this, there are boundaries. And one of them was transgressed when Gove, speaking to Parliament, described the new History curriculum as presenting a

‘clear narrative of British progress with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines from our past.’

This is quite simply an unwarranted extension from narrative history, the insertion of a wholly contestible moral perspective which deifies contemporary liberal presumption (this kind of thing becoming increasingly common in Tory circles – see Tim Montgomerie with his trite ‘right side of history’ clichés). Put simply, many reject the whiggish interpretation of history as the long march of inevitable progress. Not all, for example, would see the penal laws as the triumph of progress. Nor would all view social reforms 1967 as raising our store as a civilized society. Hell, some of us might even take umbrage with the whole idea of a ‘Glorious Revolution’, let alone the Test Acts which pockmarked our country’s reputation and claim to any moral high ground, and plenty else besides.

In other words, there are bits of history that, for many, patently were not episodes of progress. Nor have they delivered progress, nor were they a stepping stone on the way to something greater. There were episodes of history that constituted regress, episodes which still occur, episodes we should study and understand so as never to repeat, rather than to deify as part of the march of progress. Chesterton, we should remember, wrote the Crimes of England precisely because of his patriotism, not in spite of it. Cobbett thought much the same.
For the political commentators convinced Gove is storming the Guardianista fortress, be sure that Gove, in this sense, is a fully signed up member of the metroliberal club. For him, the narrative of progress is precisely what leads him toward a ‘backwoodsmen‘ analysis of opposition to the forces of progress. And indeed, like his metroliberal comrades, he buys firmly into All Must Have Prizes philosophy, whilst taking a decidedly Guardianista approach to personal responsibility.
In other words, for all his good ideas, Gove is not who his cult devotees think he is. And History is not what he thinks it is. Since in his hands it would appear to be every bit that tool of liberal triumphalism that the #cultofGove foolishly believe he is engaged in rejecting.
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